Skip to Content

Upper Part of a Grave Stela with a Deacon-Monk

Early Byzantine
6th century - 7th century
30.5 cm x 35.5 cm x 4.6 cm (12 in. x 14 in. x 1 13/16 in.)

On view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version
Additional Image Detail, head of Monk
Detail, head of Monk
Additional Image Obverse, black and white
Obverse, black and white
Additional Image Obverse, black background
Obverse, black background

The frontally facing figure with a halo enclosed within a wide decorative frame is a monk, identified by the short cape tied around his shoulders and his short-sleeved tunic. The narrow stola or scarf over his left shoulder connotes the status of a deacon. Wide-eyed and with hands raised in prayer, this monk faces God for eternity and prays for the salvation of his soul and perhaps for his monastic community. The austerity of the image is mitigated by several elements of the relief: the meander and rosettes of the frame create an ornamental counterpoint to the figure; the beard has a texture and a pattern that differ from others used on the stele; and the large, open eyes suggest the spiritualized world of devotion and faith that the monk comtemplates beyond the limits of the stele.

The stone still retains traces of red and light brown paint in the monk’s face and clothing, the border, and in the sunken background. Such coloring, applied to almost all stone and marble sculpture in the ancient and medieval worlds, would have transformed the impression of this relief, especially when set up out of doors, as it most likely was. The type of limestone and the shallow carving technique locate the origins of this gravestone in the Nile Valley, more specifically to a monastery in the vicinity of the Great Pyramids in northern Egypt, near Saqqara.
S. Zwirn

D. G. Kelekian, Important Documents of Coptic Art in the Collection of Dikran G. Kelekian (New York, 1928).

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 23, no. 30.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 16, no. 34.

K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst: die Spätantike in Ägypten (Recklinghausen, 1963), 47, fig. 62.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 10, no. 37.

D. G. Shepherd, "Saints and a 'Sinner' on Two Coptic Textiles," The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 61.10 (1974): 333, 335, fig. 5.

A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 214.

K. Weitzmann, ed., Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1979), 553-554, no. 499.

M. Bell, "A Coptic Jason Relief," Gesta 18.1 (1979): 45-52, esp. 46.

G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance (Washington, D.C., 1995), 55-57, no. 21.

T. K. Thomas, Late Antique Egyptian Funerary Sculpture: Images for This World and for the Next (Princeton, 2000), 11, fig. 86.

J. L. Hevelone-Harper, Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza (Baltimore, Md., 2005), frontispiece.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 106, pl. p. 107.

H. C. Evans and B. Ratliff, eds., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art ed. (New York and New Haven [Conn.], 2012), 70, no. 41.

J. Herrin, Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium (Princeton, 2013), 50, fig. 4.

M. Riera Rullan, ed., El Monestir de Cabrera. Segles V-VIII dC (Palma, Majorca, Spain, 2014), 19.

Exhibition History
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century," Nov. 19, 1977 - Feb. 12, 1978.

Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "Cross References," Mar. 26 - Jul. 31, 2011.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Dikran Kelekian, New York (No. 6711) (dealer), by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1935.

Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1935-1940.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C., November, 1940.

Meander | Monks|Deacons | Orants | Rosettes | Saints