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The Cyprus Treasure

The ‘Second Cyprus Treasure’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a collection of gold and silver objects that includes the David Plates.

The 'First Cyprus Treasure', also known as the Lambousa Treasure (now in the British Museum), consists of silver objects of a largely religious character. The 'Second Cyprus Treasure' emerged a few years later in two separate finds, of gold objects and silver plates, both of a largely secular nature. It is now divided between the Metropolitan Museum ib New York, and the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. Despite their different characters it is possible that the finds originally formed one treasure belonging to a single individual. Lambousa, classical Lapethos, was a Byzantine town on the north coast of Cyprus, and the richness of the objects shows that it must have been in close touch with the capital. The silver can be closely dated by its stamps, and some objects date from the last decades of the sixth century. A circular dish with a central cross may be a very early example of a paten for consecrated bread, and a censer, which dates to the reign of Phocas, is a fine and rare example in precious metal of this type of liturgical vessel.

The silver plates in the Second Cyprus Treasure bear control stamps of Heraclius, and may be associated with the emperor in a more personal way. They show nine scenes from the life of David, culminating in his victory over Goliath, which may well be a direct reference to Heraclius' single combat in 627 against the commander of the Persian army. The David theme was to become a popular one in Byzantine art; it emerges again in manuscript illuminations of the tenth century, and its use reflects the perception Byzantium developed of itself during these crisis-ridden centuries: beset by overwhelming military odds, but always supported by its consciousness of divine providence.

The evidence which links the burial of at least the First Cyprus Treasure to the Arab invasions is provided by a silver bowl with control stamps of the first half (641-51) of the reign of Heraclius' grandson, the emperor Constans II (641-68). This is one of the finest pieces in the Cyprus Treasure, but it is also the latest datable piece of Byzantine silver to have survived. The practice of stamping silver, and presumably therefore the bureaucracy necessary to impose its control, came to an end in this reign. Lambousa was completely destroyed by Arab raids in 653/4 and most other coastal cities of Cyprus suffered the same fate at around this time. By a treaty with the Arabs in 688 the island passed out of Byzantine control.

(Also see David Plates)

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