Pyxis with Imperial Families and Ceremonial Scenes
Sixteen figures encircle this pyxis, beginning with a kneeling figure offering a city--rendered in the medieval manner of a miniature castle--to an emperor. A peacock sits below the "city." The emperor is the first imperial figure of two groups, each consisting of a long-bearded emperor and an empress flanking a youth. These frontally posed court figures are followed by musicians, including a drummer, flutist, harpist, two trumpeters, a lute player, and a syrinx (?) player, and two dancers, one with arms akimbo and the other with a scarf behind her head. This last performer is half-hidden behind the first, kneeling figure.
Deeply carved, the pyxis has a very thin wall that has broken in two places, creating two halves, held together by a metal ring at the top. The lid is slightly domed and is engraved with concentric circles; twenty-four smaller circles, twenty of which retain their gilt-wax insets, fill the space between two of these larger circles
The interpretation of the figural scene is based on N. Oikonomides (1977): the emperor John VII Palaiologos (r. 1403-8) receives the city of Thessaloniki, accompanied by his wife, Irene, and son Andronikos. John's co-emperor is his uncle Manuel II (r. 1391-1425). Though the rulers had been at times estranged, they reached an agreement in 1403: Manuel would rule from Constantinople and John from Thessaloniki as "emperor of all Thessaly." Thessaloniki had just been returned to Byzantium by the Turks, and Constantinople to Manuel by John, who had served as regent during Manuel's four-year absence in Europe--the elder emperor had tried to raise funds for the defense of the empire against the Turks. The inclusion of their sons crowned as emperors alludes to a policy of alternating dynastic succession that had also been worked out.
The celebratory imagery on the pyxis represents the optimistic scheme for power-sharing between John VII and Manuel II, which seems to have been an attempt to settle the ambitions of nephew and uncle as well as to offset the vulnerability of the Byzantine Empire in the face of Turkish expansion. The carver has shown the formality of the new imperial order and the musical performance that would have accompanied its establishment.
Pyxis with Moses Receiving the Law and Daniel in the Lions' Den
A pyxis is a cylindrical box appropriate for the safekeeping of small items. The exact nature of the contents are unknown. Suggestions include jewelry, incense perfume, or eucharistic bread. More than seventy pyxides of ivory, worked from a cross section of an elephant's tusk and manufactured mainly between the fourth and the sixth century, are preserved in museums and collections. They share the same basic design, a figurative frieze composed usually of two scenes carved in shallow relief. One-third present motifs of classical mythology, while the majority depict New and Old Testament scenes.
The Dumbarton Oaks pyxis, which belongs to the latter group, depicts Moses receiving the law and Daniel in the lion's den. A number of details are unique, such as the ecstatic pose of one of the Israelites accompanying Moses, who has thrown himself to the ground. The dramatic movement is balanced by almost identical companions in the background with the same raised hands and scepters held at the same angle. In the Daniel scene, the dynamic pose of the prophet and the movement of the angels are counterbalanced by the static symmetry of the towers and the heraldic pair of lions flanking the protagonist.
Standard features of pyxides are metal locks and hinged ivory lids-the wooden lid of this pyxis is a medieval replacement-riveted to the ivory walls that provided limited security, protecting the valuables against theft. The dating is based on stylistic comparisons with related ivory carvings. More difficult is the localization of the production centers for these pyxides, which were clearly a trademark of ivory craftsmanship in early Byzantium.