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Byzantine Carved Gemstones: Their Typology, Dating, Materiality, and Function

By Katherine Harrison


This dissertation examines gemstones carved in relief from the middle and late Byzantine periods. Byzantine gems share a similar aesthetic with relief carvings in ivory and steatite, but they have not been as thoroughly studied. This dissertation seeks to address the lacuna in scholarship by assembling, dating, and analyzing two hundred Byzantine gems. Carved gemstones average less than four centimeters in height. Bloodstone, a variety of jasper, was carved the most frequently. Almost all are enkolpia, or pectoral pendants. The earliest pieces can be dated to the tenth through the early eleventh centuries. They are skillfully carved, and some display imperial themes such as the standing Christ and a symbol that is reminiscent of the globus cruciger. Some display iconographic and stylistic similarities with icons in ivory, which are also associated with emperors. The greatest number of pieces date to the twelfth century, and their quality varies considerably. This seems to suggest that initially gemstone enkolpia were owned by emperors and other elites, but that by the twelfth century they had become more accessible and their use increased. This finding is consistent with our knowledge of the cultural climate and religious practices of the twelfth century, which is characterized by a taste for luxury objects and a form of piety that was focused upon attaining individual salvation. The function of gemstone enkolpia was explored through iconographic and textual analysis, as well as a through the study of their materiality. It was found that all of the gems are carved with religious subject matter and that most display portrait images of holy figures who were known as intercessors and protectors. This suggests that gemstone enkolpia were primarily used to mediate a devotional relationship with a patron saint. Textual sources indicate that wearing an enkolpion “over the heart” was an act of devotion that ensured that the saint’s presence was carried at all times. An examination of the materiality of gems revealed that their meanings and associations were brought to bear upon the devotional function of gemstone enkolpia in a variety of complex ways. It was also found that gemstone enkolpia had an amuletic nature and could be used for healing, protection, and divination.History of Art and Architectur

Topics: Art History
Publisher: 'Harvard University Botany Libraries'
Year: 2015
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