This piece is exceptional as one of the earliest examples of both its technique and its inscription. The technique, known through only a handful of early Byzantine examples, is filigree enamel. The birds on the front, which may hold sacred significance—the peacock, for example, was associated with regeneration—are formed by bending loops of wire into the desired shape, soldering them to the surface, and filling them with glass powder or paste. Finally, the piece is heated to the melting point for glass, as a result of which the glass bonds with the metal. It is a technique Byzantine artisans inherited from the ancient Greeks.
The inscription on the reverse is made of fine gold wire forming the intersecting words PHOS (“light”) and ZOE (“life”). This formula can be traced back to ancient Christianity, ultimately to the fourth Gospel, where Christ asserts, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of Life” (John 8:12). The reference to light made the inscription particularly appropriate on early Christian lamps. The acrostic arrangement also made it appropriate for crosses. It survives on only three examples from this early period, but subsequently came into wide use in Orthodoxy.
M. C. Ross, Jewelry, Enamels, and Art of the Migration Period, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection 2 (Washington, D.C., 1965, 2nd ed. with addendum by S.A. Boyd and S. R. Zwirn, 2005), 136, no. 179H, pl. 97.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 69, no. 247.
K. Wessel, Die byzantinische Emailkunst vom 5. bis 13. Jahrhundert, Beiträge zur Kunst des christlichen Ostens 4 (Recklinghausen, 1967, Byzantine Enamels from the 5th to the 13th Century, trans. Irene R. Gibbons, Greenwich, Conn., New York Graphic Society 1967), 41, no. 3, fig. p. 40.
K. R. Brown, The Gold Breast Chain from the Early Byzantine Period in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Monographien / Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Forschungsinstitut für Vor- und Frühgeschichte 4 (Mainz and Bonn, 1984), 7ff., fig. 8-9.
D. Buckton, "Byzantine Enamel and the West," Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (1988): 237-39, fig. 6.
G. Haseloff, Email im frühen Mittelalter: frühchristliche Kunst von der Spätantike bis zu den Karolingern, Marburger Studien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte. Sonderband 1 (Marburg, 1990), 17, fig. 9.
D. Buckton, "'All that Glisters...' Byzantine Enamel on Copper," in Thymiama: Ste Mneme tes Laskarinas Boura (Athens, 1994), 47-49, esp. 47, colorpl. V.1.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol. 6 Romans (Downers Grove, Ill., 1998), reproduced on booksleeve.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 86, pl. p. 87.
L. Bouras and M. G. Parani, Lighting in Early Byzantium, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications (Washington, D.C.:[Cambridge, Mass.], 2008), 26-27, fig. 25.
Purchased from George Zacos (dealer) by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and given to Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., 1958.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.