Why had a child rear emerging from a bucket been embossed in the San Marco treasure reliquary-incense burner in the shape of a little church?
Historians have either paid no attention to it or come up with paradoxical explanations. But, if they had regarded it with alchemical eyes, they may have found some very interesting operative hints in that perplexing composition.
What is of most importance to us, or to justify my researches, and above all my postulate, is to discover what the late twelfth century perforated partly gilded silver container in a shape of a five domed structure, or church-like box, we are examining had actually been created for. As only if we can state the box being a reliquary, an incense burner, a lamp or an artoforion (for preservation of the eucharistic bread) we can try to light on that child back out of a basket-bucket. Thus we can’t avoid a thorough examination of the architectural features of the object. And only in a following time we may be allowed to consider the other embossed symbols: lions, griffins, sirens, centaurs. Which may nowadays be seen as very unusual symbols for a liturgical item, but they were not in twelfth century, the most probable period of our silver box making, and which an hermetically educated eye could have unquestionably perceived as Alchemy signs, furthermore back at that time. But again, among those quite canonical hermetic and mythological symbols, even a trained eye may have been amazed to spot this very unorthodox, and consequently, learned, child rear iconographic theme.
In venetian sources this little church in the Procuratie treasury has been known as “ Ecclesiola di San Marco”, or little church of San Marco, since the time of its arrival in Venice, that’s to say apparently before 1282, when a first treasury inventory was taken and the object was already there, archived as “a reliquary encased within a little silver church”. This is undoubtedly the church-like box we are examining: in fact, once the Ecclesiola had arrived in the city, it was immediately reworked by the unlearned venetians of the time into a reliquary. And the last sentence lead us to contemplate the venetian society at large.
Being a venetian myself I put the ecclesiola in Alchemy & Religious Art category since my venetian ancestors did so. Or, better, they considered it so beautiful and sumptuous to look the part. In the same way they had deliberated on the four bronze horses, plunded from the Byzantium Hippodrome, to be so lavish to be placed on the San Marco Christian basilica main facade, and then improved the general splendor attaching some marble hermetic panels, taken from byzantine secular palaces, on the north facade. Not to mention the Bacchus tree on the top of San Marco dome. In the same way, that’s to say without the less knowledge of what they were doing, but for mere aesthetics. And this is the reason why little bits of Byzantium had survived in Venice scattered here and there and also why the disorganized venetian hermetic art is so hard to decrypt. Of course the time of the robust robberies around mediterranean eventually came to an end. Finally the renaissance offspring realised to be immensely rich and overwhelmed by huge collections of artifacts and manuscripts. Thus, unbelievable thing for their greedy medieval forefathers, these lucky descendants retired in countryside to get down to study and learn. In fact their economic decline did start in that very period.
Hence no wonder venetians appropriated this magnificent object as a suitable container for the precious Holy Blood they brought from Beirut, to proclaim the eastern origin of the relic. On that occasion the Ecclesiola central dome was removed and made removable, thus reinforcing its base, through a circular hole of the same diameter of the latter, practiced on the same plate. The base was remade in a metal diaphragm, along the perimeter, on the outside, and then on the top of the outer walls. On the dome and on the base of the temple rebuilt appear intertwined monograms M and V that did not originally belong to the artefact. The statement comes from the absolute diversity material detectable in parts of the original gilded silver.
The San Marco Treasure church-like box stands on a square plan (cm.23 for 23) with four exedras emerging from its sides, one of which opens a door to two hinges tilt. The width between the top of the apse is semi-circles of 30 cm. The height from the base to the top of the central lantern is 36 centimeters. The interior, formed by the articulated base with four walls and apses, is isolated from the four peripheral domes and vaults from the four corners with an inserted metal plate.
The Ecclesiola five domed structure has always been the architectural way to affirm the place of manufacture. Which is uncertain. In fact the upper part with a five domed structure presents both byzantine and western art influences and recalls two specimens preserved at the museum of the Orthodox Church in Belgrade imitating a church with five domes and a cubic one in Aachen with a dome. But here in the Ecclesiola upper register of domes we can also see pyramidal roofs at corners and this combination is really atypical and lacks of surviving comparanda. Some studies estimate a duly manufacture in Venice, others in South Italy and, finally, some in Byzantium. According to Henry Maguire: “the censer displays the distinctive five-domed cruciform scheme of Byzantium preminent pilgrimage church, the Apostoleion, albeit with addidional pyramidal roofs in the corners of the central dome. A striking fact that has apparently escaped previous scholarship on San Marco is that the shapes of the domes, and especially the additional open cupola over the middle dome of the censer, also coincides with that of the outer shells of the domes of San Marco, raised over the lower byzantine in the 1260s, although the dome shapes may well have originated in islamic Egypt.” (1). According to Fernanda De’ Maffei: “ ……..the same plant again in the church of the Virgin, in the district Fanaro of Byzantium. Also in 972 John Zimiskes erected a chapel with four apses as his own tomb at Chalke Pyli. Finally on this form is characterized also the Veljusa monastery church …….. it is not unusual in Christian and Byzantine art, if one remembers that emperor Teophilo (829-842) built in Byzantium imperial palace with the three apses…. while the shape of domes is present only in Saint John of the Hermits or San Cataldo in Palermo, assuming the South as a place of origin. ”(2). Kalavrezou assumes the work is Byzantine, noting however the lack of surviving comparanda (3). Grabar and Gaborit-Chopin describe the foliate onament as well as the bulbous shape of the domes, which suggest the impact of islamic art and thus a possible sicilian provenance (4). Additionally André Grabar has hypothesized a dependence of the ecclesiola on sassanian models, considering unusual for the byzantine world a squared base with four exedras (5).
Most recently Evangelia Hadjitryphonos and Slobodan Curcic: “The rational for the reuse of the temple-shaped incense burner as a reliquary was likely to highlight the provenance of the relics from the eastern mediterranean and certify their autheticity” (6).
In my humble opinion the temple-like box could not have been made in Venice, as it was immediately reworked. And it could not have been born in Sicily too, due to the island vicinity of islamic culture ( where very hardly a human backside could have been embossed even in a piece of profane art) . It remains the last and more appropriate attribution to Byzantium. In fact the ecclesiola artistic and symbolic continuity with other byzantine items is positive. Specially when considering the symbolism object of this article: byzantine people were not scared to use anatomical details in their profane art (see the famed Veroli casket), while they provided strict rules on sacred art, as I have already stated in my article Sun and Moon at the Turn of the First Millennium. What may seem a profane symbolism embossed in Ecclesiola in fact carries out iconographic themes also used in laboratories which served the imperial court, but the child rear, which remains puzzling even to byzantine eyes.
It’s time to close up on the Ecclesiola target. According to André Grabar the ecclesiola originally had nothing to do with relics and probably served as an incense burner in a secular setting. Hence the perforated domes and the secular iconography of foliate arabesques, fantastic animals and personifications. A similar target of perfume diffuser was assigned to the little temple box by D. Gaborit Chopin according to a reading in profane sense. In my opinion the Ecclesiola perforated area is huge and formed by a flowery and greenery arabesque and this seems quite conventional in christian orthodox ecclesiastic incense burners as we can see below. The same can be said for ecclesiastic church-like structure incense burners as we can see below to compare with San Marco Ecclesiola perforated upper part. E. Hadjitryphonos and S. Curcic archived the San Marco Ecclesiola as an incense burner :” the censer was made to partially gilded silver and has a perforated decoration on domed roofs as well as on corner pyramidal towers and on the upper level of the walls, showing drawings of leaves in circular shapes, patterns beneath palm trees with pointed leaves and compositions consisting of palm and flowers. Embossed decorations forms the lower level and the import lanes so decorated with floral motifs (stems, wheels, leaves) and divide the walls into two zones.”
Yet in many scholar milieus there are opposition to that. The same aforementioned E. Hadjitryphonos and S. Curcic note: “However, although it is clear the sacred origins of the artwork, there are still some doubts about the original use of the chapel as a censer, lamp or tabernacle”. Fernanda De’ Maffei insists the Ecclesiola has neither the size nor the weight nor the structure of professional incense burners, but rather of a tabernacle-temple image of the heavenly city in which the defects remain outside, where one can enter only through the practice of virtue. She consequently suggests the object having had the artoforion function (for preservation of the eucharistic bread) for which the tunnels seem to favor the passage of air and prevent the onset of mold on consecrated bread. But most of these items are instead generally airless to prevent molds, in fact they are real boxes. In ancient times these caskets could also be church-like structured and were called tabernacles, but they tended to be airless too.