This massive, intricately carved limestone lintel is a particularly fine and rare example of early Christian church architecture. Its rich iconography and identification as an epistyle, an architectural element specific to the area around the altar in a Byzantine church, sheds some welcome light on the art of the formative centuries of the early church, particularly from the very influential Eastern areas of the Holy Roman Empire.
The epistyle is carved from a very large rectangular block of limestone. It is roughly elliptical in profile, and has been carved in three registers, each divided by a horizontal ridge.
Deep, crisp bands of carving cover the entirety of the decorative surface. The first band consists of a scrolling grape vine motif arranged symmetrically around a central chi-rho christogram surrounded by a stylized laurel wreath. Below it is a much wider frieze that features several elements of Christian iconography. The center is dominated by a large enclosed chi-rho with an alpha (A) and omega (ω), one on either side of the christogram. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and they signify the all-encompassing nature of God: “For I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:18). Again exhibiting the need to leave no space unused, stylized leaves fill the areas between the branches of the chi-rho.
Private Collection (S.B.), Europe, 1930s.
Exhibited: Ariadne Galleries GmbH, Mandarin Oriental Munich Gallery, 2007-2008.
Published: “Icons and Artefacts from the Orthodox World”, Christie’s, London, 24 November 2008, lot 41.