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Book Cover with a Cross Flanked by Cypress Trees

Early Byzantine
mid 6th century
37.2 cm x 30 cm (14 5/8 in. x 11 13/16 in.)
silver and gilding

On view


Additional Images
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Additional Image Detail of Cross
Detail of Cross
Additional Image Detail of niche
Detail of niche

The book cover is part of the Sion Treasure, an extensive group of silver vessels and revetments for a church in southwest Asia Minor of the sixth century.

Enclosed within a frame composed of a meander with rosettes at the corners is an arcade which in turn encloses a cross and two trees. The Latin cross, with flaring arms, has a beaded edge and tear-shaped serifs. Flanking it are trees represented as large leaves whose tips bend inwards towards the cross. The arcade is constructed of columns with spiral and vertical fluting, foliate capitals and a horseshoe-shaped arch articulated with a zigzag pattern. In the spandrels of the arch are tall leaves while inside it are two, superimposed shell motifs. This cover has rectangular cuttings along one edge to attach it by straps to its mate, BZ.1963.36.10, which has the same decorative scheme and pattern of gilding.

The single arcade was a sign of honor in Roman and Byzantine art. The arch focused attention on the image displayed below it as well as symbolically protected it. On a book cover for a Christian text, the cross symbolized the presence of Christ, understood in the tradition of Christian exegesis as “the tree of life … in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 2:9). The arcade with the cross can also be understood as the entryway into the book it actually protected, the Bible, and thus served as the symbol of the salvation that was to be gained. Furthermore, because the holy book was placed on the altar and read during the sacred liturgy, its imagery expressed the communal belief in a heavenly paradise.

- S. Zwirn


Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 20, no. 70, pl. 70.

H. N. Lechtman, "Ancient Methods of Gilding Silver: Examples from the Old and New Worlds," in Science and Archaeology: Papers of the 4th Symposium on Archaeological Chemistry, Atlantic City,1968 ed. R.H. Brill (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 1-18.

E. Kitzinger, "A Pair of Silver Book Covers in the Sion Treasure," in Gatherings in Honor of Dorothy E. Miner ed. R.H. Randall, L.M.C. Randall and U.E. McCracken (Baltimore, 1974), 3-17.

V. H. Elbern, "Über die liturgische Kunst im frühbyzantinischen Altarraum," Das Münster 31 (1978), esp. 10.

M. M. Mango, C. E. Snow, and T. Drayman Weisser, Silver from Early Byzantium: the Kaper Koraon and Related Treasures, exhibition catalogue, Walters Art Gallery, 18-August 17, 1986, (Baltimore, Md., 1986), 202-203, 207, 210.

M. E. Frazer, "Early Byzantine Silver Book Covers," in Ecclesiastical Silver Plate in Sixth-Century Byzantium: Papers of the Symposium held May 16-18, 1986, at the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. ed. S.A. Boyd and M.M. Mango (Washington, D.C., 1992), 71-76.

S. A. Boyd, "A 'Metropolitan' Treasure from a Church in the Provinces: An introduction to the Study of the Sion Treasure," in Ecclesiastical Silver Plate in Sixth-Century Byzantium: Papers of the Symposium held May 16-18, 1986, at the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, and Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. ed. S.A. Boyd and M.M. Mango (Washington, D.C., 1992), 5-37, no. 22a.

J. Osborne, "The 'Cross-Under-Arch' Motif in Ninth-Century Venetian Sculpture: an Imperial Reading," Thesaurismata 27 (1997): 7-17.

E. Takahashi, Bizantin bijutsu, Sekai bijutsu daizenshu. Toyo hen, 6, Shohan ed. (Tokyo, 1997).

V. H. Elbern, "Heilige Zeichen im frühbyzantinischen Altarraum," in Arte d'Occidente: Temi e Metodi: Studi in Onore di Angiola Maria Romanini ed. A. Cadei (Rome, 1999), 755-65.

J. Lowden, "The Word Made Visible: the Exterior of the Early Christian Book as Visual Argument," in The Early Christian Book, ed. W.E. Klingshirn and L. Safran, CUA Studies in Early Christianity (Washington, D.C., 2007), 13-47, esp. 24, 29-30, fig. 7.

T. Rainer, Das Buch und die vier Ecken der Welt: von der Hülle der Thorarolle zum Deckel des Evangeliencodex, Spätantike, frühes Christentum, Byzanz. Reihe B, Studien und Perspektiven (Wiesbaden, 2011), pl. XL, fig. 224.

G. d. Nie, Poetics of Wonder: Testimonies of the New Christian Miracles in the Late Antique Latin World, Studies in the early Middle Ages (Turnhout, Belgium, 2011), 366, fig. 7.

M. Wallraff, Kodex und Kanon: Das Buch im Frühen Christentum, Hans-Lietzmann-Vorlesungen (Berlin, 2013), 75, fig. 12.

M. Milwright, The Dome of the Rock and its Umayyad Mosaic Inscriptions, Edinburgh Studies in Islamic Art 6 6 vols., ed. R. Hillenbrand (Edinburgh, 2016), 232, no. 8.6.
[caption misprinted accession number BZ.1936.36.9]

Exhibition History
Washington, D.C., Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, "In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000," October 21, 2006 - January 7, 2007.

Acquisition History
Purchased from George Zacos (dealer) by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Switzerland, 1963.

Given by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss to Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., 1963.

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