Height: 7.900 cm
Diameter: 11.900 cm
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Room 41: Europe AD 300-1100
Ivory pyxis with St Menas
Early Byzantine, 6th century AD
Probably made in Alexandria, Egypt
A focus of Early Christian Egypt
This small pyxis came from the Early Christian church of S. Paolo fuori le mura (‘St Paul outside the walls’) in Rome. It was probably made in Alexandria in Egypt. Its carvings show two scenes from the life of Saint Menas, a semi-legendary Egyptian soldier martyred (killed for his religious belief) in the late third century AD.
In the first scene, a Roman prefect holding a sceptre orders the execution of the saint, bound as a prisoner. Simultaneously a soldier grasps Menas by the hair and raises his sword to kill him, while an angel flies in from above to receive his soul. In the second scene, Saint Menas stands as a haloed orant (praying figure) beneath an arch supported on twisted columns. The saint can be identified by the two camels beside the columns: these creatures carried his body to burial after his death, but when they refused to move beyond a certain spot, it was taken as a sign that he should be buried there. The two men and two women shown on either side of Saint Menas probably represent a couple and their children, who may have had the pyxis carved as a votive offering to the saint.
After his death, Menas acquired a reputation for miraculous healing powers. A church was erected on the site where he was believed to be buried, some forty miles south-west of Alexandria. In the fifth and sixth centuries the church became the national shrine of Christian Egypt, attracting pilgrims from across the ancient world.
D. Buckton (ed.), Byzantium: treasures of Byzant (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
M. Bagnoli, H. Klein, C. G. Mann and J. Robinson, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, r (London, British Museum Press, 2011)