Two fragments of a vine scroll ornament (BZ.1935.12 and BZ.1940.59) undoubtedly formed part of the same or very similar arches with an inner span of about 2.5 m. The decoration with consecutive circles of interlacing vine tendrils is strongly geometric, although retaining a certain naturalistic quality: alternating grape clusters and vine leaves intertwine at regular intervals and fill the space within and between the consecutive circles. A related fragment showing Dionysos (BZ.1940.60) served as a keystone of a similar arch, though a bit smaller in diameter.
The remarkable depth of the sharply carved design, which creates a strong contrast of light and shadow, and the combination of symmetry and repetition characterize a well-known group of limestone sculpture that has been excavated at the early Byzantine site in Middle Egypt of Oxyrhynchus (modern Behnesa).
There has been much debate and confusion about the date and context of these architectural fragments. In the beginning of the twentieth century, they were interpreted as parts of church decorations. The excavations, however, were not systematically undertaken and documented and there is little exclusively Christian about these carvings. Revisions in the chronology of Egyptian-Coptic sculpture have led to a shift in opinion. This type of carving is now recognized as mainly belonging to tomb sculpture and originated in the city’s necropolis. The vine scroll arches may have been the façade of a Christian or a pagan tomb cella or the decoration of a funerary niche.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 22, no. 27.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 15, no. 31.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 10, no. 33.
A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 182, fig. p. 184.
G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance (Washington, D.C., 1995), 32-35, no. 14, pl. 14A.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 68, pl. p. 69.
Purchased from Dikran Kelekian, New York (No. 7350) (dealer), by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1935.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1935-1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.