Skip to Content

Book Cover with a Cross Flanked by Cypress Trees

Early Byzantine
mid 6th century
37.5 cm x 27.6 cm (14 3/4 in. x 10 7/8 in.)
silver and gilding

On view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version
Additional Image Obverse, detail of Cross
Obverse, detail of Cross
Additional Image Obverse, detail of niche
Obverse, detail of niche
Additional Image Reverse, upper proper right corner
Reverse, upper proper right corner

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

Enclosed within a frame composed of a meander with rosettes at the corners is an arch 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 arch 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.1963.36.9, 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 not only focused attention on the image displayed below it, it also 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 arch with the cross can also be understood as the entryway into the book it actually protected, the Bible, and thus served as a 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.

The Archbishop Lakovos Library of Ecclesiastical and Historical Sources, vol. 10 The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, trans. I. Sevcenko and N.P. Sevcenko (Brookline, Mass., 1984), reproduced back cover.

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. 22b.

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.

S. Dufrenne, "Les légendes des miniatures," in La Bible du Patrice Léon, Codex Reginensis Graecus 1: Commentaire Codicologique, Paléographique, Philologique et Artistique (Città del Vaticano, 2011), 104, fig. 5.

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.1936.36.10]

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.