4th century octagonal early christian reliquary from Novalja

Because of their deep religious significance and the value of the precious metals they were usually made from, reliquaries are a rare type of archaeological finds. Reliquaries from the town of Novalja were discovered in a small underground chamber enclosed by stone slabs, beneath an as yet unexplored basilica from the Early Christian period.

The original set was comprised of a rectangular wooden box encased in embossed tin, which contained a glass urn and a silver elliptical vessel. As new relics were acquired later on, a polygonal reliquary was added to the group.

The Early Christian period is characterised by strong growth and development, as evidenced by all of these finds. A particularly fine example is an 8-sided reliquary made from gold-plated tin with an embossed relief depicting Jesus and the Apostles, spread over the eight sides of the vessel, which is covered by a lid with a pinecone on top.

This find dates back to the 4th century and exhibits high-quality craftsmanship. It has been completely preserved and is now kept in the Zadar Archaeological Museum.

The relief depicts the scene of “handing over the law” (Traditio legis), a motif that was introduced in the second half of the 4th century. Jesus Christ is always shown in the centre of the composition, with Peter on his left, and Paul on the right. Jesus is holding up his right hand, and holding a volume in his left. His face and left hand are turned toward Peter, who is bearing the cross and reaching out to Jesus to receive the law. Paul on the right is holding a scroll (rotulus) in his left hand, and reaching out to Jesus with his right hand. The other five apostles portrayed cannot be identified because their iconography builds on the depictions of ancient philosophers. All of them are wearing togas and palliums, and their heads are shown in profile. Three of the apostles are holding scrolls, one is holding an open book (codex), while the last one, a bearded man, is holding both a book and a scroll. The reason why there are only 7 apostles instead of the usual 12 is probably because of the size of the object.

The iconography of Jesus among the Apostles is a common motif on sarcophagi dating from the late 4th and early 5th centuries, so the style of the 8-sided Novalja reliquary is perfectly representative of the period. The “handing over the law” theme with all Twelve Apostles is a common motif found on sarcophagi of the time, while reliquaries usually display a reduced version. The Christ-centric images, such as these seen on the Novalja piece, were created to reinforce the idea of the Church that the law of the land comes from God, and that He is the only true ruler.

Author: Taken from: J. BARAKA, 2008, 121 / visitnovalja.hr

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