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Keystone with Dionysos

Early Byzantine
late 5th century - 6th century
35 cm x 38.5 cm x 12.5 cm (13 3/4 in. x 15 3/16 in. x 4 15/16 in.)

On view


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Additional Image Detail, Dionysos
Detail, Dionysos

The fragment (BZ.1940.60) showing Dionysus, nude except for a mantle, with legs crossed and his right arm placed over his head—now broken off—leaning on a spirally fluted pedestal, served as a keystone of an arch whose span would have been approximately 2 m.

The remarkable depth of the sharply carved design, which creates a strong contrast of light and shadow, and the combination of symmetry and repetition characterize a wellknown group of limestone sculpture that has been excavated from a rich early Byzantine site in Middle Egypt called Oxyrhynchus (modern Behnesa).

Closely related to two fragments with a vine scroll ornament in this collection (BZ.1935.12 and BZ.1940.59) which undoubtedly formed part of the same or similar arches with an inner span of about 2.5 m.

There has been much debate and confusion about the date and context of these architectural fragments. In the beginning of the twentieth century, they were interpreted as parts of church decorations. The excavations, however, were not systematically undertaken and documented and there is little exclusively Christian about these carvings. Revisions in the chronology of Egyptian-Coptic sculpture have led to a shift in opinion.

We now know that these sculptural remains were mainly part of tombs and belong to the city’s necropolis. The vine scroll arches may have been the façade of a Christian or a pagan tomb cella or the decoration and setting of a funerary niche. Dionysus in combination with grape vines alludes to the hope of the deceased for a joyful afterlife.

- G. Bühl

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 23, no. 32.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 16, no. 36.

K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst: die Spätantike in Ägypten (Recklinghausen, 1963), 42, fig. 57.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 9, no. 31.

A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 203, fig. 207.

G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 35-39, no. 15, pl. 15.

T. K. Thomas, Late Antique Egyptian Funerary Sculpture: Images for This World and for the Next (Princeton, 2000), 63, fig. 80.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 68, pl. p. 69.

Acquisition History
Purchased from D. Kelekian (No. 7670), New York (dealer), by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, October 1940.

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., October-November, 1940.

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

Columns | Dionysus | Grapes|Bunch of Grapes | Scepters | Scrollwork|Scrolls | Staff God|Staffed Deity|Staff Deity | Wreaths