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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.32 Book cover
13th c., 1st half, and 14th c.
Dionysiou Monastery
24.3 x 18 cm


The Original New Testament

This cover, set over the leather binding of a thirteenth-century manuscript Gospel, was assembled from disparate elements, probably at the time when the leather binding was made. The almost square plaque with the Crucifixion, which occupies most of the front, is a typical product of the enamel workshops in Limoges, where from the mid-twelfth century on craftsmen specialised in champlevι enamelwork executed on a base of gilded copper. The more costly cloisonnι enamel, adopted from Byzantium, had been abandoned early in the century under the pressure of the multiplication of the monastic houses and the growing demand in the Western Church for liturgical utensils. The enamellers of Limoges profited from their city's extremely advantageous geographical situation, on the cross-roads of the great trade and pilgrim routes into Italy and Spain. Ecclesiastical and political links with other crusading states carried Limoges ware to the Holy Land, and from there obviously to the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. There are records of diplomatic gifts to the Kingdom of Armenia, and a number of book-cover plaques similar to this one have been preserved in Novgorod (Oeuvre de Limoges 1995, pp. 40-7).

Plaques depicting the Crucifixion were virtually mass produced at Limoges, and more than ninety examples have been preserved (Gauthier 1967). This one from the Monastery of Dionysiou is entirely typical: the figure of Christ and the heads of the Virgin, St John and the angels are rendered in relief on separate copper sheets, and the enamelled background, punctuated with rosettes, is worked in two shades of blue. The nearly square shape, however, is not suitable for the cover of a liturgical book, and was probably initially intended for some other use, perhaps as an icon revetment, or as an ornamental sheathing for an altar (Oeuvre de Limoges 1995, p. 171).

The silver bands, with traces of gilding, riveted around the edge of the binding come from a Palaeologan cover. Triple tendrils twine and form a rinceau encompassing palmettes, their half-leaves filling the intervening spaces. The repeated series of eight palmettes, variants of the lotus and traditional palmette, are separated by a narrow row of beading. The combination of the rinceau and palmettes belongs to the context of Palaeologan decoration (cf. Amiranachvili 1971, fig. 81, wings of a triptych dated 1308-34. Loverdou-Tsigarida 1996, fig. 392). The lotus motifs, however, are quite different from the five-petalled Byzantine palmettes of the so-called 'Sasanid' type, and were probably influenced by contemporary Islamic decorative art.

These bands must have come from an icon revetment or a liturgical book cover: in any case, those ornamenting the longer sides have been affixed upside-down and, probably for lack of more appropriate pieces, the same have been used on the shorter sides, with the result that the motifs are lying sideways. Five bosses have been riveted on the bands, two of gilt, with a lattice pattern coming from a Palaeologan cover, and three plain silver ones, obviously later additions.

Bibliography: Unpublished.

A. B.
Index of exhibits of Monastery of Dionysiou
13th century

The Authentic Greek New Testament Bilingual New Testament I

Icon of the Mother of God and New Testament Reader Promote Greek Learning
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Learned Freeware


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