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The Archaeological Museum of Istria; [email protected]
Publication Date
  • Bizant
  • Makedonska Renesansa
  • Bjelokost
  • Kost
  • Religious Science


SUMMARY THE BYZANTINE CASKET OF THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM OF ISTRIA IN PULA Dino MILINOVIĆ Among the holdings of the Archaeological Museum of Istria in Pula is a casket in bone, which remains fairly unknown to the Croatian scholars despite the fact that, on several occasions, it was the subject of studies of leading international experts on ivory (Graeven, Goldschmidt, Weitzmann, Cutler). The casket, which was first mentioned in a church in Piran, Slovenia, is a unique item in the Croatian collections. However, a large number of preserved exemplars kept in church treasuries, as well as those belonging to collections of various countries (some 40 known exemplars) indicate that they are items that were serially produced for rich clients. The finest exemplars are made of ivory, though in almost all the cases some parts in bone were added. This indicates a particular construction technique as well as occasional shortages of precious materials in the Middle Ages. A more detailed analysis showed that the Pula casket was made of bone, which accounts for a somewhat lesser quality of reliefs and ornaments when compared to the finest works from the same group of caskets (for example the Veroli casket, which is kept in London). What attracted the attention of experts to these objects was mostly the classicizing style, which was in fashion in Constantinople in the 10th century AD, and which is indicated by figural reliefs that ornament the caskets. The represented subjects span from singular representation of mythological figures (gods or heroes) to more elaborate, narrative episodes which are reminiscent of friezes adorning late antique sarcophaguses. One of the characteristics of the Pula casket is that it belongs to the group of caskets decorated by elaborate, narrative reliefs, which is a distinctive feature of the finer exemplars in the group. In addition to the question of purpose of the items of this kind (the lock inserted in the Pula casket indicates its possible use), the question addressing the iconographic interpretation, that is, the meaning of the antique models used by the carvers of the Byzantine period, is of particular interest. The answer to this particular question is especially important in assessing the “Renaissance” movement, that is, programmatic reaching out for the classical heritage of Antiquity, which is an important characteristic of the restoration movement in art and culture, which took place in Byzantium during the Macedonian dynasty in the 10th century. “Parody” of antique models has often been mentioned due to the fact that emphasis was placed on motifs such as spirited putti depicted in various poses and actions, or due to the frequent intertwining of individual iconographic types that indicate ignorance or superficiality with regard to the models. The Pula casket bears several such examples, the comparisons of which can be found on other works, even the finest quality ones. However, a more thorough iconographic analysis suggests that the repertory of these reliefs does not seem to be so unusual when seen under the light of continual presence of antique impulses. These impulses, pinned as perennial Hellenism by Ernst Kitzinger, are like an ever-present stream of antique experience sinking under ground and resurfacing at almost regular cycles in Byzantium and in the West (“the Carolingian Renaissance” and “the Ottonian Renaissance”). It is important to emphasize that the repertory of the Byzantine caskets, including the Pula one, shows a logical line in the metamorphosis of the antique shapes which had been “filtered” by the late antique and early Christian art, losing a part of their original significance in the process. Nevertheless, they witness the need for the antique heritage to be emphasized as a constituent part of the cultural ideal of the enlightened elite. In this context, the Pula casket is a valuable piece of evidence of the presence of the above mentioned ideal in the north Adriatic area.

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