Missorium of Theodosius
Eastern Empire, 388
Silver with silver gilt, Diameter 74 cm
Location: Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid
The large plate is divided into two nearly equal pieces by a jagged line of cracks which runs from the upper left to the lower right. This damage differs from the smaller networks of cracks that coincide with the outlines of figures represented to the far right. The main line of breakage is the result of purposeful attempts to divide the plate: blows of a chisel or a similar tool can be seen along the break. Examples of this practice have been found in barbarian silver hoards, although most pieces of scrap silver, or Hacksilber, are smaller than the halves of the missorium.
Traces of gilding remain in the individual letters of an inscription that circles the plate. It reads D(ominus) N(oster) THEODOSIVS PERPET(uus) AVG(ustus) OB DIEM FELICISSIMVM x and refers to the celebration of Theodosius' decennalia in 388. The emperor is shown enthroned on axis before a facade with an arcuated lintel. He is flanked by two princes, Valentinian II to his right and Arcadius to his left. All three wear lavishly embroidered tunics and mantles and jeweled fibulae and diadems. The three are distinguished from one another by relative size and attributes. Theodosius is the largest; Valentinian is next in size with attributes of scepter and orb; and Arcadius is the smallest, represented with an orb. They are all larger than the other human figures and all three have haloes. Two guards flank the imperial figures at each side, while an official approaches the emperor to receive the codicil of an imperial commission. In the exergue a personification of the earth, or abundance, reclines among grain stalks, holding a cornucopia; three Erotes offer fruits and flowers.
The very low relief is detailed by fine patterns of stippling and engraved line. The drapery of the figures in the main scene is plastic in conception, consisting of softly modeled surfaces contained within simple outlines. The faces of the emperor and the princes are understood as miniature sculptures whose style can be paralleled in the large-scale portraits of the Theodosian dynasty. By contrast, the personification in the exergue is treated in a cursive, linear style. The spatially complex posture is translated into a two-dimensional design; the drapery is characterized by numerous fine folds and a rippling border.
While the missorium is easily dated, a place of origin is more difficult to determine. A Greek inscription on the back records the plate's weight (fifty Roman pounds) and may indicate a Greek-speaking craftsman. The cities of Constantinople and Thessaloniki, where the imperial anniversary was celebrated in 388, are the most plausible centers for the execution of the missorium, an official gift to a high-ranking dignitary. Found with two silver cups near Almendralejo, in the province of Badajoz, Spain, in 1847.
Also see: Obelisk of Theodosius