Philobiblon: Mementoes of late antiquity

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Mementoes of late antiquity

I nipped up to the British Museum this morning for a talk on Ephesus (one of my favourite places in the world), but it was cancelled, so I opted for an exploration of late antiquity and Byzantium. (And found they've substantially remodelled these galleries - check them out if you haven't been there a while.)

The first theme that emerged was the practicality of the ancients. There are a large number of "gold-based cups", with pictures in gold leaf samdwiched between two layers of glass on the flat bottom. When one partner died, this served as their burial marker. (Many have been found in the catacombs of Rome.) Nothing like being prepared.

You can see an example here. Most are Christian, but this one shows a pagan adopting Christian iconography, but saying "in the name of Hercules" instead of "in the name of Jesus". There's also one in which Cupid offers a blessing.

All you could want to know about Roman glass techniques can be found here.

There are also a large number of gold wedding rings. They show Christ and the bride and groom on the bezel, and are all engraved with the the word "harmony" (in Greek of course). If you take injunctions to behave in a certain way as indications people are acting the opposite, that gives you some idea of the marriages of late antiquity.

But they are also an octagonal shape, which makes them childbirth amulets - that double-purpose investment again.

Finally I did get to Ephesus, in the form of a moulded glass cameo, a tourist trinket of its day, showing the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus". They were Christians said to have taken refuge in a walled-up cave in AD250 during a persecution, who emerged more than a century later, just when a controversy was raging about the reality or otherwise of the resurrection of the physical body. Having put the "heretics" to flight, they then conveniently disappeared again for good.

This translation from a medieval Anglo-Norman source gives a less cynical view on it.


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