The Parabiago Plate
Rome (?), late 4th century
Silver with silver gilt, Diameter 39 cm
Representations of numerous mythological figures and their attributes are executed in relief on the interior of the plate, with details in punchwork and engraved line. Traces of gilding remain on many of the figures. The plate is framed with a faceted rim and loosely divided into three zones, distinguished from one another by scale and subject matter. Across the center of the field, a large cart is pulled from left to right by a team of galloping lions. Its occupants are the goddess Cybele with staff, shield, and mural crown, and her lover, Attis, who carries the syrinx and pedum and wears the Phrygian cap and costume indicative of his Eastern origins. The cart is surrounded by three dancing Corybantes dressed in soft boots, brief tunics, and helmets, swinging shields and short swords. To the right a muscular nude male appears to rise from the earth, bearing an oval ring inscribed with zodiacal symbols. Aion, a personification of time, is represented as standing within the ring next to another temporal reference in the form of a snake coiling about an obelisk. In the upper register, to the left, Sol rises in a quadriga preceded by Phosphorus, the morning star; to the right, Luna descends in a biga drawn by oxen as Hesperus leads the way. These activities are witnessed by eleven figures from the earthly realm who fill the lower third of the plate. The four seasons, represented as children, wear the costumes and carry the products appropriate to their individual labors and climates. To the left, male and female river personifications recline in postures adjusted to the curve of the plate. To the right, Tellus is represented with babes and a cornucopia indicative of fertility and abundance. In the middle are personifications of the salt waters, the bearded Oceanus with a rudder and a Nereid. Cybele and Attis are thus surrounded by figures of the sky, the waters, and the earth, many of which, like the seasons, are also under-stood as temporal, cyclical references. The tragic liaison of Cybele and Attis was celebrated in Roman religion as an annual cycle of death and rebirth tied to the seasonal changes. The plate is an elaborate example of the imagery of the cult from the late fourth century. Technical details and stylistic parallels link the plate to other pieces of fourth-century silver, such as the Corbridge Lanx and pieces from the Esquiline Treasure (Four Tychai, Projecta Casket and Muse Casket). Such links also suggest a place of manufacture in the West, perhaps in the city of Rome. The plate was found in Italy in 1907 in a Roman burial ground at Parabiago, near Milan.