Ivory pyxis

Early Byzantine, 6th century AD
Possibly from Egypt

Carved with pastoral scenes

This pyxis was cut from a transverse section of a tusk with the bottom fitted in as a separate disc. The scenes depict goatherds and shepherdesses playing horns and cymbals, among goats and sheep. One of the shepherdesses bears a cornucopia and a crook. Bundles of thatched reeds between the goatherds represent a simple hut with floral and foliate elements suggesting a rural landscape.

The subject matter and some of the details, such as the cymbals, recall classical imagery of pastoral and Dionysiac celebrations. However, the figures are discreetly and realistically clothed in tunics and leggings. The curious depiction of the thatched hut resembles those in the earliest illuminated manuscripts, while the stylization of the hair and the crossed legs of the goatherds signal a move toward the conventions of medieval art.

It is likely that the pyxis belongs in the Early Byzantine tradition of ivory containers. The British Museum has other examples: the pyxis with St Menas is another example from the same period, and the pyxis with the Healing of the Demonaic, a unique Carolingian version of the same type of vessel.

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More information


O.M. Dalton, Catalogue of the ivory carving (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1909)

W.F. Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätanti (Mainz, 1976)


Height: 10.500 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1866,7-14,1


Bequeathed by Sir A.W. Franks


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