Ivory Pyxis with St. Menas
Egypt or Constantinople, 6th century
The pyxis has lost its cover and base as well as its lock and hinge. It is chipped in places along the rim, and the carving is smoothed with wear.
The pyxis is carved with scenes relating to the martyrdom of St. Menas. The series starts with a scene of judgment: the prefect is seated on a stool, flanked to the left by a guard and to the right by a scribe. The scribe holds a diptych and stands before a table with an inkpot upon it. At the far left of the scene is a large, apparently irrelevant basket. The execution of St. Menas follows on the right: Menas, clad in a loincloth, crouches with his hands tied behind him, while the executioner, in a short belted tunic and long trousers, raises his sword and seizes the saint by the hair. An angel flies in, extending his veiled hands to receive the soul of the saint. To the right is a low hill and a tree.
Then follows the familiar representation of St. Menas standing as orant between his two camels. He is dressed in a short tunic, high boots, and a long chlamys decorated with a tablion. He has a halo and stands under an arch supported by two spiral columns, representing his sanctuary. Pilgrims approach from the sides — two women from the left, two men from the right. This figure of St. Menas must ultimately reflect the image that adorned his tomb chamber at Abu Mena in Egypt, amplified here to include the architectural setting and the figures of pilgrims.
The subject matter of the pyxis has led scholars to assume it was carved in Egypt, an assumption strengthened by its stylistic affinities with the Wiesbaden Pyxis, which is adorned with Nilotic themes. Yet its style has still more in common with the ivories of the Maximianus Cathedra, whose Egyptian provenance is still disputed. The cult of St. Menas, furthermore, was not confined to Egypt, and there were several sanctuaries of St. Menas in the sixth century for which the pyxis could conceivably have been made. Recently, Beckwith and Kollwitz have suggested that the ivory was carved in Constantinople.
Its original purpose is unclear; it may have been used as an incense box or as a reliquary. It was bought from a dealer in Rome in the late nineteenth century, but there is no evidence for the assumption that it came from a sanctuary of St. Menas in that city.