Symmetrical arrangements of animals and vegetation occur over and over in Byzantine decorative arts in general, and in early Christian sculptures from Coptic Egypt in particular. Crosses flanked by animals and vine scrolls portray the natural world, not as a chaotic wilderness, but as a controlled domain, subdued under a triumphant God at its center. In some cases, the beasts are worshiping the cross. In others, they are rather surrendering to it. In this relief, two antelopes shoulder a cross between them on a sort of yoke tied crosswise around their necks. The animals are in crouching poses, suggesting that they are straining under its weight. The resulting impression is that the cross is taming or dominating the beasts, almost as a charioteer might drive a team of horses.
The subjugation of antelopes actually occurs in imagery from Pharaonic and Ptolemaic times. Ancient Egyptians protected their homes and temples from wild animals and evil spirits by placing near the entrance a stele (freestanding relief) with an image of the god Horus as a child, subduing various wild animals: snakes, crocodiles, and even antelopes. In ancient Egyptian thinking, the antelope was associated with the untamed wilds, to be contrasted with the civilized realm of the Pharaoh. The image of Horus subduing the antelope had the power to ward off any encroachment from the wilderness. In the seventh century, the Christian sculptor of this relief recycled the antelope as a symbol of chaos, this time subdued not by Horus, but by the cross of Christianity.
- J. Hanson
D. G. Kelekian, Important Documents of Coptic Art in the Collection of Dikran G. Kelekian (New York, 1928).
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 23, no. 33.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 16, no. 37.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 10, no. 35.
G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 58-61, no. 22, pl. 22.
D. Frankfurter, "The Binding of Antelopes: A Coptic Frieze and its Egyptian Religious Context," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 63.2 (2004): 97-109.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 122, pl. p. 123.
D. Frankfurter, Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 146, fig.9.
Purchased from D. Kelekian, New York (dealer) by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, October 1940 (No. 7670);
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, October-November, 1940;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.