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Reliquary of St. Zacharias

Early Byzantine
6th century
3 cm x 2.5 cm x 0.5 cm (1 3/16 in. x 1 in. x 3/16 in.)
gold and gems

On view


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The sliding lid of this narrow container has the simple inscription “of Saint Zacharias," which indicates that this delicate box was made to protect a memento, perhaps a relic, of Saint Zacharias. Such a holy object inspired the level of virtuosity that might have been lavished on a comparable piece of secular jewelry. The front of this reliquary is accented by a gemstone—an early Byzantine garnet has been inserted to suggest the look of the now-missing original—framed by foliate openwork surrounded in turn by a crisscross pattern executed in opus interrasile, a very fine punchwork, the whole edged with beaded wire; the reverse displays a cross in a wreath framed by a simple guilloche or braid; floral motifs appear on the sides and bottom.

The loops on the lid of the reliquary indicate that it was worn as a pendant, probably suspended around the neck as a personal amulet. However Saint Zacharias may have been invoked by the object within, whether a relic, a brandeum, a written prayer, or a miniature book, it was considered potent and valued for its protective powers from evil spirits, actual enemies, illnesses, or other malevolent forces that abounded in the spiritual and real worlds. Because there was no sharp boundary between these two worlds in premodern times, objects of a holy character were prized possessions and warranted protection in valuable reliquaries. The potency of this particular relic was enhanced by the embellishment of its gold case with a cross, the Christian emblem of victory, which is framed by a traditional wreath of victory. This is one of the finest examples of a Christian reliquary that survives from the early development of the cult of relics and apotropaic amulets during the early Byzantine period.

- S. Zwirn

M. C. Ross, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 2, Jewelry, Enamels, and Art of the Migration Period, (Washington, D.C., 1965; 2nd ed. with addendum by S.A. Boyd and S. R. Zwirn, 2005), 30-31, no. 31, pl. 27.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 50, no. 174.

A. Yeroulanou, "The Byzantine Openwork Gold Plaque in The Walters Art Gallery," in Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 46 (1988): 8, fig. 11 (reverse).

L. Kötzsche-Breitenbruch, "Zum Ring des Gregor von Nyssa," in Tesserae : Festschrift für Josef Engemann, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Erganzungsband 18 (Münster, 1991), esp. 296, pl. 38e.

Memory and the Middle Ages, ed. N. Netzer and V. Reinburg, exhibition catalogue, Boston College Museum of Art, (Chestnut Hill, Mass., 1995), 21, 102, no. 12.

A. Geroulanou, Diatrita : Gold Pierced-work Jewellery from the 3rd to the 7th Century (Athens, 1999), 97, no. 127, fig. 167.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 88, pl. p. 89.

C. J. Hahn, M. Bagnoli, D. Krueger, and H. A. Klein, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland Museum of Art; Walters Art Museum; The British Museum, October 17, 2010 - October 9, 2011, (Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore; London; New Haven, Conn., 2010), 44-45, no. 25.

Exhibition History
Chestnut Hill, MA, Boston College Museum of Art, "Memory and the Middle Ages," Feb. 17 - May 21, 1995.

Acquisition History
Purchased from George Zacos (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, November 1957 and presented to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss;

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1957-1969;

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