Cleveland’s celebrated textile Icon of the Virgin is part of a major exhibition at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. In exchange, Dumbarton Oaks has lent the CMA two extraordinary early Christian liturgical vessels, now on view in gallery 106A. The rite called the Eucharist (literally, “giving thanks”) reenacts the Last Supper, at which, according to the New Testament, Christ told his followers that the bread and wine at the table were his body and blood. During this ceremony, priests use special plates called patens to hold the bread and chalices for the wine. The faithful believe that by consuming this heavenly food, they assimilate to Christ and thus have the potential for salvation from death.
These two patens represent the finest surviving liturgical plates from the early Byzantine period (c. 300–726). Both were found in large hoards of liturgical vessels, known as the Sion and Riha Treasures, in Turkey and in Syria, respectively. During periods of unrest, their owners buried the objects but were unable to return and retrieve them. Dumbarton Oaks has numerous silver objects from the Sion Treasure, as well as a chalice and a fan from the Riha Treasure. Christians gave patens and other vessels to churches and often had inscriptions added around the rims recording their pious donations. The offering of such a special ritual vessel was believed to help the donor at the Last Judgment.
The larger paten, from the Sion Treasure, is an exceptionally luxurious, expensive object. Its size alone conveys its status, and its weight testifies to its value. Along with several other pieces in this treasure, the paten references the bishop Eutychianos, who is otherwise unattested in the historical record. The niello inscription around the rim translates from Greek as, “This was presented in the time of our most holy and most blessed bishop, Eutychianos.” Niello comprises a powdered metal mixed with sulfur that is put into incised designs. When heated, the mixture melts and creates a black surface, which can be polished to a sheen.
In the center of this elaborately decorated, gilded-silver paten is a Christogram, which combines the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ). The Chi-Rho was a common early Christian symbol, used interchangeably with a cross, to represent Christ. The four lavishly ornamented rings around the paten’s rim contrast with the spare elegance of this symbol. The ring of grape leaves refers to the wine served during the Eucharist, and the border features the repoussé technique, in which the back of a surface is delicately hammered to create raised shapes on the front.
The Riha paten weighs considerably less and was presumably not as expensive a gift as the Sion paten, but it is still exceptional. The Greek inscription reads, “For the repose [of the soul] of Sergia, [daughter] of John, and of Theodosios, and [for] the salvation of Megalos and Nonnous and their children.” This paten has a wonderful representation of the Last Supper, in which Christ is depicted twice offering bread and wine to his 12 apostles.
The layers of narrative in this image go both backward in time to the Last Supper and forward to the celebration of the Eucharist in the present. They connect the apostles with Christians in church consuming the Eucharist and represent the belief that priests making the offering stand in for Christ. Like the Sion paten, the Riha paten is made of gilded silver, shaped with the repoussé technique, and inscribed in niello.
These two rare, distinctive patens evoke a much larger, multisensory ritual environment in which silver and gold plate shimmered in the sun and lamplight, incense wafted throughout the church, sacred images covered the priest’s robe, and mosaics and paintings adorned the walls. People not only saw a reflection of heaven around them, they also smelled, touched, and tasted it when consuming the Eucharist.