Pyxis and Casket

Pyxis with Christ and Apostles

North Italy, 4th century 
Silver 12.3 cm

Casket with Crosses and Palmettes

Constantinople, 6th century

Gold 1.6 x 2.3 x 1.9 cm

The hexagonal pyxis and its vaulted lid are each decorated with six figures in embossed work, one figure to a panel. On the pyxis the beardless, youthful Christ stands between Peter and Paul, accompanied by three other apostles. Each wears the tunica and the pallium. Christ is teaching and Paul is listening, his right hand hanging downward and holding a small object, perhaps a misunderstood roll. The embossed busts of Christ and the five apostles occur again on the six panels of the lid. Christ, Peter, and Paul repeat the types standard on pyxides, while the other apostles on the lid follow other iconographic models. The decoration of the pyxis occurs once again on a somewhat later octagonal pyxis found in the altar of the Early Christian cathedral of Novalja in Dalmatia, Yugoslavia, with the exception of the center, which shows the traditio legis, and of the lid, which is decorated with tendril ornaments.

The present pyxis is divided into several cells, one of which contained the small gold casket with the relics. The oblong front and back of this casket are filled with two facing rows of acanthus leaves or palmettes, and the end panels with crosses, which are flanked by two twisted bands. On the lid, a circular plaited band encloses a cloisonné cross in indigo blue enamel. The reliquary casket contained two pieces of bone wrapped in yellow silk.

Two very similar fourth-century gold caskets with relics have been found along the Adriatic. The first one, discovered in 1871 in Grado, had been preserved in a silver pyxis placed in a stone container; the second was discovered in 1968 in the Early Christian basilica of Cim and had been preserved in an altar sepuicrum of the sixth century.

The ornament of the three caskets can be compared with similar ones on a pendant reliquary of St. Zacharias in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. That pyxis is said to have been found in Constantinople and the three caskets from the Adriatic can also be presumed to have been produced there. They were probably sent with relics to the West.

During excavation in 1860, the pyxis and casket were found near the vestry of the ancient cathedral of Pola (Pula), Istria. They had been kept together with other reliquaries in a small marble sarcophagus, which had been preserved in a stone container under a marble slab.