This fan was said to have been found together with a paten and chalice (BZ.1924.5 and BZ.1955.18, respectively) at Riha, a small village south of Aleppo in central Syria. The burial in this area was probably in response to invasions during the early seventh century first by Sasanian invaders and then by Arab forces. Because the owners had to flee or were killed, the liturgical objects were not retrieved until the early twentieth century. This group and silver treasures from nearby Stuma, Hama, and Antioch were discovered at about the same time, and it has been suggested that these hoards actually constituted one large group brought together for protective burial, which was divided into smaller sets after it was unearthed early in the twentieth century. The chalice, paten, and fan are each impressed with stamps that indicate the emperor’s reign during which it was made. The chalice was fabricated during the reign of Justinian I (527–65), while the paten and fan belong to the reign of his successor, Justin II (565–78). Although the chalice’s date indicates that it was made befpre the paten and fan, the three may well have been used together at a subsequent date. They form a set for use in the Orthodox Eucharist, or Communion: the paten held the leavened bread, still a tradition in Orthodox worship, the chalice contained the wine, and the fan was used to keep insects away from the bread and the wine. Jesus instituted the Eucharist, as recorded in the gospels of Matthew (26:26–28) and Mark (14:22–24): offerings of bread and wine to the apostles that foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood.
By the fourth century feather or textile fans were used to keep insects away from the Eucharistic bread and wine. Precious metal fans, of which this is the earliest example, may have fulfilled the same function, but were also symbolic in nature. The Riha rhipidion is engraved with peacock feathers around its rim, while cherubim—the four-winged creatures described in Ezekiel 1:4–21—appear in the center of both sides. Like the prophet’s vision, the figures have “a luster like that of shining metal” and four wings, hands, and faces, known as a tetramorph. The faces are those of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. The wheels are also part of the vision, for “the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels.”
The spiritual awe of Ezekiel’s vision may explain the presence of the tetramorph in the Eucharist service, but the visionary image had additional meaning in Christian terms. From a very early date, each of the four Gospel writers was associated with one form of the tetramorph: Matthew with the man; Mark with the lion; Luke with the ox; and John with the eagle. In other words, Ezekiel’s vision was understood as foreshadowing the historical character of the Four Gospels.
A fan from Stuma (in Istanbul, Archaeological Museum) is similar enough in size and design to the Riha fan that they are considered a pair. They differ insofar as the Stuma fan has seraphim with six wings engraved on it instead of the cherubim as on the Riha fan. Although no other such pairs of fans have survived, literary references and visual representations provide evidence of their existence.
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