Box Reliquary of the True Cross and Other Byzantium Devotional Art

Last Updated: 25 Mar 2023
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This exquisite box, currently exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was made in Constantinople (Byzantium, now Istanbul) in the late 8th or early 9th century. Such relics are said to have housed the pieces of the True Cross, which was allegedly discovered in the 4th century by Saint Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (New York Met Museum, 2005). During the time of the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Constantinople was to become the largest Christian city in the Christian world.

It managed to fend off attacks from the Arabs with its superior navy and Greek methods of warfare (Ellie Crystal, “Byzantine Empire,” 1995 – 2005). This box survived the Iconoclast Crisis in the 8th century, when Emperor Leo III banned all activity involving “idol worship”. All sculptures and icons containing images saints and other religious luminaries were ordered to be destroyed, and the only symbols allowed to be used for religious reverence, were that of plants and birds or the Cross.

Prior to the crisis, however, such reliquaries were very common for the safekeeping of pieces of the True Cross or the bones of saints, and were very common at the time. The iconoclasm was a very violent and turbulent time in Byzantium due to the zealotry of Leo III and his differences with the Patriarch of the time and according to various account, Leo III took a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera as a sign of God’s wrath over idolatry in the Church (Wikipedia). It was during the ban of religious icons that the Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus I, was removed or resigned his post.

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Meanwhile, in the West of Byzantium, Pope Gregory III condemned Leo III’s decisions and actions and held two synods at Rome, publicly denouncing the iconoclasm. In retaliation, Leo III seized papal lands as well as raided churches and seized altar cloths, reliquaries and plates (History of the Byzantine State and Society, Treadgold, Helen, Stanford University Press, 1997). Following Leo III’s death, his son Constantine V continued the ban and here is where some interesting occurrences come to light: the monasteries began to protest publicly. One monk, John of Damascus, protested iconoclasm through his theological writings.

Another monk, Theodore the Studite brought things to a head by writing a letter to Pope Paschal containing strong words against the emperor. This brought dire consequences and was considered a major political step in the wrong direction by Constantine V, who invaded the monasteries, seizing their relics and throwing them into the sea. The next move from Constantine was to ban the monks from invoking the saints. This terrible period came to an end upon the death of Constantine V’s son Leo IV, whose Athenian wife Irene took position as regent for their young son, who would be the future emperor.

She brought an end to iconoclasm and restored the ability of the artisans of the time to create icons depicting saints, Jesus, and the other figures of Christianity. It is difficult to imagine such violence over images used for the purposes of drawing upon the power of God being so violently opposed when icons and images of political figures were considered to be acceptable works of respect. Already it is easy to see that the survival of this box reliquary is almost a miracle in itself, considering the wanton destruction of such items, even as common as they were.

Since this particular box is made of certain substances that are considered rare today, let us now turn our attention to the box itself. It is small, measuring 4 inches long and 2-7/8 inches across. The estimated date of creation of this box is the late 8th to early 9th century, which would be the period of iconoclasm discussed above (NY Met Museum). This box reliquary is constructed of cloisonne enamel, silver, silver-gilt, gold and niello. The fascinating things about the box’s composition are the components of cloisonne enamel and niello, neither of which were native to Byzantium.

Niello was commonly used in Europe until the Renaissance, but rarely used after that (Hillwood Museum & Gardens, n. d. ). Cloisonne enamel was very popular in China during the Ming dynasty, but appears to have its origins in Cyprus (Dr. Panicos Michaelides, 1989). It was during the Byzantine Empire that cloisonne enamel was perfected and put to wide use from the 6th to 12th centuries, with the methods being transmitted to China in the 15th century where the art of cloisonne was further perfected to such a degree that China set the standard for quality of this substance (ChineseMoods. com, 2005).

The substance of cloisonne enamel is glass powder mixed with water until a paste is formed. The paste is then applied to the die-cast of metal such as gold, silver or copper. Each color used in the process is fired separately, making for a very labor-intensive construction of only one part of the box decoration. There appear to be three colors used in terms of cloisonne enamel; blue, white and green. The metal in this case is gold, to which the cloisonne enamel was adhered. The lid of the box reliquary features Christ still alive on the cross in the crucifixion scene, accompanied by the Virgin and St. John at his feet.

Bordering the crucifixion scene are the images of fourteen saints. The underside of the lid features descriptive yet somewhat primitive art depicting four scenes from the life of Jesus: the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion, and Anastasis (or Descent into Limbo). Inside the box are five compartments arranged in the shape of a cross, where relics would be kept. The four sides of the box feature the fourteen saints found on the lid, and are also made of cloisonne enamel and the bottom of the box features a beautiful cross in gold. The other substance of interest is niello, which is a black metal mixture used for decorative purposes.

It is truly a lost art, as niello is rarely used today due to technological advancements in goldsmithing replacing the ancient arts of engraving with tools and chisels (Prof. Dr. Erhard Brepohl, 2001). According to Dr. Brepohl, the making of niello involves melting and mixing silver, copper and lead, the use of borax and sulphur (which explains why niello is no longer popular, since its ingredients are highly toxic), After a rather tedious and noxious fume-producing procedure, the metal alloy is then quickly cooled so that it breaks into granules. The granules are then ground with a mortar and pestle and mixed with flux to create a paste.

When struck with a hammer. The finished niello should be uniformly black and shatter like glass. The niello paste is applied into the recesses of the object to be decorated (in the case of this box reliquary it would be the etched lid), then fired and cleaned. One can only stand in awe of the meticulous care with which this little box and other reliquaries were made, with such precision and detail to last for centuries. In terms of how the Byzantine Empire gained these skills to become virtually unparalleled as extraordinary artisans, friendly exchanges with the West are the source.

Through flourishing trade routes and the power of the Roman Empire, Byzantine religious art took on enormous proportions. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “From classical and ancient Christian art Byzantine genius derived a correct combination of the ideal with truth to nature, harmonious unity along with precision in details, as well as the fondness for mosaics, frescoes, and pictures on panels, in opposition to the dislike of non-Christian and sectarian Orientals to pictorial representation. ” The rich symbolism depicts reverence and devotion completely absent in modern art.

The reliquaries were made in anticipation of what would be kept within them and crafted with utmost skill and care. Although many were destroyed during the iconoclastic crisis, enough of them remain today to view in museums such as the Met, hopefully to inspire people that view them and understand the enormous skill and even danger that went into making and keeping them. Other reliquaries are simpler in nature and construction, such as the box reliquary of the Sancta Sanctorum Treasure, which measures 27. 7 X 18. 0 cm (approx. 10. 9 X 7. 1 inches).

This box is bigger than the box reliquary described above, but is less ornate. It is constructed of wood and tempura and is red in color. Gold leaf adorns the five scenes depicted on the lid, which are of the Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion, Women at the Tomb and the Ascension, read from the bottom left to upper right (Gary Vikan, 1982). Housed in the Vatican museum, this particular box contains stones collected in the sixth and seventh centuries in the Holy Land, along with bits of wood and cloth. This particular box is considered to be the rarest among the Sanctus Sanctorum Treasures (Cleveland Museum Of Art, 1998).

When contemplating how these relics survived the destruction during the above noted Iconoclasm we must also look to Europe during the 8th and 9th Centuries, where Christianity was taking hold. One interesting fact is that beginning in the year 787, all new Christian churches had to have a relic in order to be consecrated. Since Christianity was spreading at such a rapid rate in Europe, the Church provided relics and reliquaries from her collection (Richard Jones-Nerzic, 2002). Relics were considered to be pilgrims’ souvenirs and reliquaries were specifically crafted for the safekeeping of those relics.

As reliquaries and relics began to spread to Europe, owning them became a symbol of status (Jones-Nerzic) because of their origins in Byzantium and the dangerous journey they made to get into the hands of the Europeans. Another form of Byzantine art was the carving of ivory reliefs, such as the Triptych Icon of Hodegetria, (Greek for “She who shows the way”) made in Constantinople in the late 10th Century. This exquisite three-paneled piece shows wear due to veneration over time, and features the Virgin with the Christ Child as well as two unknown saints on the folding wings of the triptych.

This triptych is 4-3/4 inches high and 9 inches in length (The Walters Art Museum, 2001). An outstanding and elaborate ivory triptych is housed at the Louvre; it is called the Harbaville Triptych after the last known owners and features the elegance and detail of the revival of icon use after the iconoclasm. This triptych is sunning, with the central panel depicting the Deesis (entreaty) of Christ enthroned on behalf of humanity (Louvre Museum, n. d. ). Flanking the Son Of Man is the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist.

Beneath the center panel and on the wings are the apostles, martyrs and soldiers. This piece is considered to be one of the finest from the imperial workshop known as “Romanus” and combines several different techniques from the Orient as well as classical antiquity and the Christian tradition. The reverse side of the central panel is embellished with a Latin cross featuring rosettes along with scenes from the Garden of Eden. Two cypress trees, one on either side of the cross represent Good and Evil, all under a starry background.

The side panels depict saints with books or crosses. Traces of gold leaf can still be found on this triptych, and the Louve literature states that there are two other similar ivory triptychs, one being housed in the Vatican and the other at the Palace in Venice. All three are thought to have been carved around the same time, between the 9th and 11th centuries in Constantinople. One more example of these reliquaries is a cross reliquary featuring St. John Chrysostom, made in Constantinople around 920 – 930 (Dr. Rozmeri Basic, 2000-2005).

Made of gilded wood and painted, the scenes of this lovely box depict St. John Chrysostom on the underside of the lid, with the Crucifixion on the top. The scene inside the box is decorated around a cavity for the box’s contents and features saints and angels in detail. Given the turbulent times and the rich history surrounding Byzantium and Europe during the medieval times, it is a wonder that pilgrims dared to cross into the Holy Land. But they did, driven by the desire to see and touch the very places and items associated with Jesus and the saints.

Reliquaries were designed for this purpose, enabling pilgrims to bring back earth, bits of bone or cloth, anything that could be deemed something from a sacred place. Pilgrims often traveled in groups and were subject to robberies and even murder from roadside bandits and wild animals, including lions. Still, the faithful made their journeys and the reliquaries that made it back to their homelands were preserved and valued not only as pieces of art but also as items in contact with the Messiah’s surrounding. Some even were professed to have healing properties.

Recreating these reliquaries in modern times would be considered labor-intensive and toxic; some of the ingredients used in the reliquaries certainly shortened more than one life p of an artist in the ancient days; still, reliquaries are being reproduced and copies are on the open market, still drawing an intrigue after more than a millennium.


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  13. Secondary Reference Treadgold, Helen. 1997, “History of the Byzantine State and Society”, Stanford University Press. Secondary resource contained within Wikipedia, cited above.

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Box Reliquary of the True Cross and Other Byzantium Devotional Art. (2016, Aug 01). Retrieved from

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