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Rosette Casket with Warriors, Dionysiac Figures, and Animals

second half of 10th century - first half of 11th century
15.7 x 23 x 16 cm (6 3/16 x 9 1/16 x 6 5/16 in.)
bone and ivory on wood

On view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version
Additional Image Back, two figures and rosettes
Back, two figures and rosettes
Additional Image Box interior, back
Box interior, back
Additional Image Box interior, front
Box interior, front
Additional Image Detail of left side
Detail of left side
Additional Image Detail of lid
Detail of lid
Additional Image Detail of right side
Detail of right side
Additional Image Detail, lock
Detail, lock
Additional Image Detail, rosette strips
Detail, rosette strips
Additional Image front
Additional Image Front corner
Front corner
Additional Image Front, snake below lock
Front, snake below lock
Additional Image Front, with key
Front, with key
Additional Image Left side, from above
Left side, from above
Additional Image Lid interior
Lid interior
Additional Image Lid, left side
Lid, left side
Additional Image Reverse
Additional Image Right, plaque and rosettes
Right, plaque and rosettes
Additional Image Side
Additional Image Three-quarter view
Three-quarter view
Additional Image Top
Additional Image Top

This is one of about one hundred caskets, or boxes—made of wood, and clad with ivory and bone reliefs— that have survived from Byzantium. In this instance, all the plaques are bone except the panel with a serpent below the lock. What these caskets were used for is uncertain. The fact that they have locks suggests that their owners used them to secure valuables—perhaps coins, sugar, spices, perfumes, or another household valuable—against theft by domestic staff. Whatever the owners stored in them, they probably valued these sumptuous objects more as 'objets d'art' than as containers.

What is surprising about these boxes is their imagery. Unlike any other class of Byzantine object, the boxes are dominated, not by Christian themes, but by profane figures loosely derived from the mythological repertory. The Dumbarton Oaks casket presents a selection of vaguely classicizing soldiers, waging war in various states of undress, and winged youths or erotes, carrying cups and bottles or pouring wine, appearing on the sides and flat part of the lid; and a series of real and fantastic animals placed on the oblique sides of the lid. It is not possible to combine the figures into a cohesive narrative or myth. So, as tempting as it may be to suppose that the imagery appealed to a humanist market with a scholarly understanding of classical mythology, the amusing, disorderly character of the images suggests that they appealed instead to the Byzantine sense of humor. They provide us with rare insights into the sphere of Byzantine comedy not offered by religious works. In this case, the figures represent a sliding scale of manly behavior from the spear-wielding soldiers at one end to the cavorting erotes at the other. We may suppose that in Byzantine culture, as in so many others, unexpected gender behavior was a dependable comedic device.

- J. Hanson

L. Bréhier, "Le Coffret byzantin de Reims," Gazette des Beaux Arts 5 (1931): 265-82.

A. Goldschmidt and K. Weitzmann, Die byzantinischen Elfenbeinskulpturen des X.-XIII. Jahrhunderts, Vol. 2: Reliefs (Berlin, 1934, 2nd ed. 1979), 82-83, no. 236, pl. 76-77.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 107-10
123, no. 238.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 82-83, no. 289.

K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 49-55, no. 23, pl. 25-31.

C. Mango, "The Byzantine Collection," Apollo 119 (1984): 21-29, esp. 45, fig. 12.

A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400, Publications / Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine Collection 8 (Washington, D.C., 1985), 35, fig. 34.

———, The Hand of the Master : Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (9th-11th Centuries), (Princeton, 1994), 18, 223-224, 265 n. 67, figs. 17, 171.

N. Metallinos, ed., Byzantium: The Guardian of Hellenism (Montreal, 2004), 116, fig. 5.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 150, pl. p. 151.

A. Walker, The Emperor and the World: Exotic Elements and the Imaging of Middle Byzantine Imperial Power, Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries C.E. (New York, 2012), 141, fig. 57.

Exhibition History
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, "Exposition d'art byzantin," May 28 - July 9, 1931.

Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," October 22, 1985 - January 6, 1986.

Acquisition History
Collection of Maurice de Rothschild, Paris.

Purchased from Rosenberg and Stiebel, Inc., New York (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., January 1953.

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

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