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Wed–Sun 11am–7pm
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1533 Sul Ross St.
Houston, TX 77006
713-525-9400
Open Now
Wed–Sun 11am–7pm
Free Admission
1533 Sul Ross St.
Houston, TX 77006
713-525-9400

Menil

Reliquary, ca. 500
Medieval, Byzantine
Macedonia, possibly Stobi
Gold
1 ¾ × 2 5/8 × 1 ½ in. (4.4 × 6.7 × 3.8 cm)
3-D Object/Sculpture
X 819

Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston
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While no records of its excavation are known, this small lidded box is said to have been found at Stobi, an archaeological site located in present-day Macedonia. This ancient settlement, a prominent city during the Roman and Byzantine empires, was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 518 CE. If the find site is accurate, we can infer that the work dates no later than the first quarter of the sixth century. The container functioned as a reliquary, a repository for actual or purported remains (relics) such as fingers, bones, remnants of clothing, or other belongings of a saint or a holy figure. This example’s diminutive size and the fact that it is fashioned from precious metal suggest that it was the innermost of a complex reliquary, which is when two or three increasingly smaller containers are fitted into one another. The exterior layers were likely made from a more durable, protective material like marble, limestone, lead, or less frequently wood.

 

The Menil’s reliquary is unusual among surviving examples in metal because it lacks any decorative embellishment. No precious stone, inscription, image, or ornamental pattern distracts from its simple geometry: a rectangular box precisely fitted with a hinged lid in the shape of a gabled roof. This formal purity encourages us to focus on the box’s remarkable technique—soldering is confined to the interior of the casket; hammer marks are perceptible only under magnification; and near-perfectly aligned vertical planes all demonstrate a level of craftsmanship befitting the reliquary’s sacred function.