Pendant of Empress Maria
Pendant of the Empress Maria
Milan (?), 398-407
Agate cameo with gold, emeralds, and rubies
1.3 x 1.8 cm.
The pendant is a small, round, flat-sided receptacle, made of two white and russet orange agate cameos. The cameos are attached back to back by a band of gold set with four lozenge-shaped emeralds and five pairs of small rubies. Both faces of the pendant have inscriptions cut in very low relief, arranged spokelike around a central ansate cross. The inscriptions read, on one side: HON + ORI(US), MARIA, STEL + ICHO, SER + ENA, VIVA + TIS, and, on the other: STEL + ICHO, SERENA, ECH + ERI(US), THERMA + ANTIA, VIVA + TIS. The inscriptions are in the shape of christograms, with the loop of the Rho made by the name of Maria on one, Serena on the other side. These cameos, of an amulet type popular during the later empire, combine two distinct but well-known Early Christian inscriptional formulae : the christogram and the acclamatio. These inscriptions, the pendant's round shape, and its similarity to Christian bullae of precious metals, decorated with crosses or monograms, have caused the pendant to be considered a bulla. However, it is an encolpion since some grains of earth, smelling of musk, probably from the Holy Land, were found inside at the time of its discovery.
The cameo inscriptions leave no doubt for whom the object was destined — Maria, daughter of the patrician Stilicho and of Serena, a niece of Theodosius I, and sister of Eucherius and Thermantia. She was married in Milan, in 398, at a very young age, to Honorius, the emperor of the West. It is quite possible that this reliquary was given to her on that occasion. Although no other such pieces of jewelry are known, the pendant of Maria accords well in its simple and severe style with the phase of early Byzantine classicism at the end of the fourth century.
The pendant was discovered in February 1544 during work at St. Peter's in Rome, in the Chapel of St. Petronilla, or "the Chapel of the Kings of France," along with a lavish group of gems and precious vases in the marble sarcophagus of a young woman whose body was wrapped in fine cloth of gold. She was identified as Maria.