This paten, chalice, and fan were said to have been found together at Riha, a small village south of Aleppo in central Syria. Their burial in this area was probably in response to invasions during the early seventh century by Sasanian and Arab forces and, because their owners had to flee or were killed, the silver objects were not retrieved until the early twentieth century. This group and silver treasures from nearby Stuma, Hama, and Antioch were discovered at about the same time, and it has been suggested that these individual hoards actually constituted one large group brought together for protective burial, which was divided into smaller sets after it was unearthed about one hundred years ago.
The chalice, paten, and fan are each impressed with stamps that indicate the emperor's reign during which it was made. The chalice was fabricated during the reign of Justinian I (527-65), while the paten and fan belong to the reign of his successor, Justin II (565-78). Although the chalice's date indicates that it was not made along with the paten and fan, the three may well have been used together at a subsequent date. They form a set for use in the Orthodox Eucharist, or Communion: the paten held the leavened bread, still a tradition in Orthodox worship, the chalice contained the wine, and the fan was used to keep insects away from the bread and the wine. Jesus instituted the Eucharist, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew (26:26-28) and Mark (14:22-24): offerings of bread and wine to the apostles that foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ's body and blood.
This paten and a related one from Stuma (Istanbul, Archaeological Museum) illustrate the Communion of the Apostles, the precedent for all Eucharist ceremonies in the Orthodox church. Although part of the Gospel narrative, the representation is symbolic, showing Jesus twice with a cross-halo, behind the altar, officiating as a priest and a deacon, in front of a niche with a shell motif, suggesting the apse of a small church. He distributes wine and bread to the apostles standing to either side of the altar while lamps burn above on top of columns.
Inscribed in handsome niello letters around the edge of the paten is the supplication of its donors: "For the repose (of the soul) of Sergia, (daughter) of John, and of Theodosios, and (for) the salvation of Megalos and Nonnous and their children." The prayer for Sergia and Theodosios was "repeated" whenever the paten was used, certainly an intended result of the inscription's placement. The detailed image of the Communion is in the repoussé technique, raising the metal surface by tamping from the back. Gilding has been added for spiritual value, and the lustrous niello further enhances the paten's aesthetic impression. The use of the paten with its symbolic image contributed to the deeply spiritual character of the Eucharist and accentuated the heartfelt prayer of its donors.
By the fourth century feather or textile fans were used to keep insects away from the Eucharistic bread and wine. Precious metal fans, of which this is the earliest example, may have fulfilled the same function, but were also symbolic in nature. The Riha rhipidion is engraved with peacock feathers around its rim, while cherubim-the four-winged creatures described in Ezekiel 1:4-21-appear in the center of both sides. Like the prophet's vision, the figures have "a luster like that of shining metal" and four wings, hands, and faces, known as a tetramorph. The faces are those of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. The wheels are also part of the vision, for "the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels." The spiritual awe of Ezekiel's vision may explain the presence of the tetramorph in the Eucharist service, but the visionary image had additional meaning in Christian terms. From a very early date, each of the four Gospel writers was associated with one form of the tetramorph: Matthew with the man; Mark with the lion; Luke with the ox; and John with the eagle. In other words, Ezekiel's vision was understood as foreshadowing the historical character of the Four Gospels. A fan from Stuma (in Istanbul, Archaeological Museum) is similar enough in size and design to the Riha fan that they are considered a pair. They differ insofar as the Stuma fan has seraphim with six wings engraved on it instead of the cherubim as on the Riha fan. Although no other such pairs of fans have survived, literary references and visual representations provide evidence of their existence.
The distribution of wine was an integral part of the Eucharist, so that chalices were made in the same material as patens, often as a set (diskopoterion). This chalice, with its large bowl, small knob, and flaring foot, has the typical shape and proportions of many other sixth-century chalices. The bowl of the chalice allowed a large amount of wine to be held, evidence that Communion was distributed only on periodic occasions throughout the ecclesiastical year. A chalice of this shape and relative size is represented on the altar on the Riha paten. The words of the niello inscription around the chalice would have been said by the priest celebrating Communion: "Thine own of Thine own we offer Thee, O Lord." These words also appeared on the altar of the imperial church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople.