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THE COPTIC IVORY PYXIS OF SAINT MENAS

November 26, 2017

A pyxis (p. pyxes) is a Latin word that means small box or casket. Pyxes were used in the Greek, Roman and Byzantine times to hold medicines, incense, cosmetics, etc.; and they were often decorated on the outside. The pyxis I would like to talk about here is a special pyxis, but it is a shame that the Copts knew little about it. It is a pyxis that is held at the British Museum (G41/dc13) and shows the martyrdom of Saint Menas (Mina). It goes back to the sixth century and is extraordinary in its composition and portrayal of the figure of the saint. It was made in Alexandria but somehow found its way into Europe. It was discovered in a chapel in Rome dedicated to St Menas located in the Church of St Pauls-Outside-the-Walls, and obtained by the British Museum in 1879. A lot religiously, historically and socially can be read into this pyxis. It is with the intention of making this Pyxis of Saint Menas familiar to Copts, particularly Coptic artists, that I write this article; and I hope that they depict the artistic work carved in this pyxis in their art.

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Figure 1: The first main scene (Saint Menas praying), showing St Menas standing beneath an arch supported by two spiralled columns, representing his sanctuary in Abu Mina in the desert of Mareotis.  St. Menas stands with hands extended out in the traditional Coptic, orans position of prayer.[1] He wears a short, long-sleeved tunic (dalmatic) that goes down to his knees. On his feet he wears high boots that cover the saint’s calves. These boots are called in Latin calcei (s. calceus); and are usually secured with laces.[2] Unlike Roman sandals, they cover the whole foot and are worn outside the house. Those of senior army officers were heavy-soled and hob-nailed.[3] Calcei were worn only by free men – no slave was allowed to wear them. Over the tunic, he wears a cloak decorated with a diamond-shaped tapestry sewn into the cloak.[4] The long cloak that covers the front and back of the saint down to his mid-legs is fastened over the right shoulder of the saint with buckle (called fibula). This type of cloak was called lacerna (p. lacernae) and at the time of the Roman Empire, it was worn by a general to distinguish him from all other army officers. It was worn, however, by a general outside the city only. It was also used by the Roman senators over their toga, but a senator was required to take it off at the commencement of the Senate. These lacernae were commonly dyed with the royal purple[5]. A hallo (nimbus) adorns the head of the saint. The heads of two recumbent camels flank him on each side. Two women on the saint’s right side and two men on his left side, all pilgrims, approach him, possibly singing hymns.

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Figure 2: On the right side of the scene in Fig. 1, showing two women worshipers. Behind the two women is a tree. On the other side of this view, you can see Saint Menas and the angel hovering above him, a scene that belongs to the second main scene in the puxis (see Fig. 4).

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Figure 3: On the left side of the scene in Fig. 1, showing two men worshipers with a basket behind them, representing some donation. The other half of this view belongs to the second main scene (see Fig. 1): an armed guard with a sword and a shield stands behind the judge passing the execution sentence on St. Menas.

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Figure 4: The second main scene (martyrdom of St. Menas), showing a Roman prefect, who acts as the judge, seated as a judge upon a stool with his feet on a footstool. He has the right hand raised while the left holds a staff of authority. Before the prefect is a table covered with a tablecloth and with an inkpot on top. On the left hand side of the prefect, a court clerk (scribe) stands holding a diptych with his left hand while his right hand extends to the inkpot. In front of the prefect, St. Menas is shown falling on his left knee, crouching, and with his hands bound behind his back, and an executioner grasps the saint by the hair while brandishing a sword ready to cut his head off. St. Menas is undressed down to his underpants as he is depicted wearing only a loincloth. An angel hovers over the saint, ready to receive his holy soul in his veiled extended hands.

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Figure 5: The scene in Fig. 4 moved a bit clockwise to show the martyr, his executioner, and the angel in full.

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This pyxis is made of ivory, and was cut from solid ivory. Originally it had a cover, a hinge and a lock but these are lost now. The bottom base of the pyxis is also lost. It was probably originally used to keep incense or even holy relics of one of the saints. The pyxis, which is about 210 gm in weight, is 7.9 cm in height[6] and 12.2 cm in circumference (length)[7]; and, therefore, the sides of the pyxis, if the cylinder is unrolled and flattened out, will form a rectangle with a height of 7.9 cm and a length of 12.2 cm, amounting to a surface area of 96.38 cm2. This area is all carved with scenes from Saint Menas’ martyrdom, and represents the real artistic part of the pyxis.

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I have described, in the captions attached to the above five figures, in much detail the images carved in this extraordinary ivory Coptic pyxis. There are basically two main scenes shown in this pyxis:

  1. The traditional scene of Saint Menas standing with his hands raised up, palms towards heavens, in the orans position of prayer.
  2. The scene of the martyrdom of Saint Menas, including his trial by the Roman prefect and then his execution.

There is a lot to learn from these lively images. The trial scene is particularly interesting and fits the descriptions we have in Coptic martyrologies. Here we have a sixth century representation of such trials. These tribunals were usually presided over by the perfect of the region, in Saint Menas’ case it must have been that of Alexandria. They were usually held in the opening in front of the public. The deliberations of such trials were meticulously recorded by a court scribe. The tribunal usually involves an attempt by the prefect to dissuade the would-be martyr from believing in Christ and showing contempt to the imperial order with promises of material inducements. The saint is asked to sacrifice to the Roman gods but the saint responds confirming his or her Christianity and showing contempt of the false gods. The prefect threatens the saint with all sorts of torture and death, and, after a few attempts to change his mind, the saint is put to death usually after some torture. It is believed that the tribunal records were later collected by Julius of Aqfahs who left us many stories of martyrdoms.[8] The depiction of last moments of Saint Menas before his execution by the sword is very expressive: the saint, naked, apart from a loincloth, and barefooted, is made to kneel on one of his knees, while the executioner pulls him from his hair and makes him crouch forward. The executioner raises his sword high up ready to strike the neck of the saint but the saint is not afraid but seems very composed with a firm, resolved and deep, faithful look.

The scene showing Saint Menas standing in the orans position portrays him as a strong, beardless, young man. Coptic sources tell us that he was executed on 15 Hatur 26 AM, which corresponds to 11 November of the year AD 308. He was then 24 years old. Saint Menas who descended from a family of governors, was made a general in the Roman army. When Diocletian issued his edict against Christianity in AS 303, Saint Menas abandoned the army in protest, and became an ascetic of five years before his martyrdom. The attire worn by Saint Menas is interesting, and says a lot of the period and his position.  He wears a short, long-sleeved tunic that goes down to his knees. He appears to have it belted round his waist but that is not very clear. Over the tunic he wears a lacerna – a decorated, purple cloak that was worn by generals in the Roman army. Because the lacerna covers the saint’s tunic, we cannot see the usual decorations one usually finds in Coptic tunics; the decorations are, however, seen in other early depictions of Saint Menas, such as the seventh century ivory of the Grado Chair.[9] On his feet are calcei high boots. This is an attire of a Roman citizen. I do think this image represents Saint Menas when he went in AD 309, five years after his isolation, to the Roman authorities to disclose his faith in Christ, and seeking martyrdom. His conscious probably pricked him as he fled from the army in AD 303, and did not declare his Christianity as many other army officers had done. It is, therefore, in the costume of a Roman general, complete with lacerna and calcei, that he approached the Roman authorities, who, according to Coptic sources, soon recognised him. The saint’s image shown in this pyxis is thought to be a copy of his original image painted in the tomb chamber in his martyrium at Abu Mina in Egypt.

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If there is anything I would like to achieve by this article, in addition to honouring the memory of this great saint and wonder-maker, is to inspire Coptic artists to create new icons of Saint Menas that respect the original image of Saint Menas, and are respectful of the costumes of that age that tell a lot about the saint himself.

Somebody may try to virtually unfold the pyxis into a flat rectangle and paint the two main scenes in one, or two, flat piece of art.

 

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[1] For the orans position, see my article: How the Copts Prayed? The Orans Position (August 26, 2017).

[2] The calcei may be low or high and are secured usually by laces. They usually have two holes at the sides through which leather thongs are passed and tied round the legs.

[3] Roman legionary soldiers and auxiliaries were issued caligae (s. caliga), which are also heavy-soled, hobnailed but were like sandals, with open areas to allow air into the feet. Both the calcei and caligae were marching boots.

[4] Called tablion.

[5] Also called, Tyrian purple, Tyrian red, imperial purple, and imperial dye. It’s a naturally extracted dye from sea snails.

[6] The perpendicular line between the two circular bases.

[7] The circumference of the circular bases.

[8] See: E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Brans, Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices (Oxford, 1998); pp. 1-21.

[9] For ivories of the Grado Chair, see my article: The Beautiful Coptic Ivories of the So-Called Grado Chair (November 24, 2017).

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