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.
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.
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, "Exposition d'art byzantin," May 28 - July 9, 1931.
Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 22, 1985 - Jan. 6. 1986.
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.