Incense was a significant aspect of religious ceremony and other important occasions throughout antiquity and during the Byzantine Period, much as it still is in the High Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches today. Exotic incenses from South Arabia where particularly highly prized and considered a desired commodity. Regarded as a vital part of the experience of the liturgy, censers and burners were suspended throughout the church and swung by deacons, emitting the strong fragrance to honor the Gospel, the altar, and the objects used in the Eucharist. The concept of the Byzantine church as a sacred space, or more precisely, the image of Heaven on Earth, was taken very seriously. The church was, therefore, designed to convey the impression of otherworldly experience. The ecclesiastical architecture and church furniture, religious art, music, and incense colluded to create a particular setting - sacred space - for the performance of the liturgy. Calming, if not slightly intoxicating, the pungent aroma of the burned incense contributed to the elimination of common smells. They also affected the participants in the liturgy by transporting them to another world, a metaphysical reality distinguished by such images, sounds and fragrances.
The need for incense burning led to the manufacture of a range of often elaborate censers, such as the present hexagonal design. Originally, it would have been lined with copper, in which the hot coals and incense would have been placed. This silver example features a cross on each of its six sides, and each cross is inscribed with the words ΦΩΣ (‘light’) and ΖΩΗ (‘life’), in reference to Jesus. Spirally-fluted columns with acanthus or lotus capitals adorn each corner. This censer is particularly intriguing due to the inscription that runs around all six sides. The text is a dedication which reads ‘ΕΥΧΗ ΩΝ Ο ΘΕΟΣ ΤΑ ΟΝΟΜΑΤΑ ΟΙΔΕΝ’, which translates as ‘A vow (or prayer) for those whose names are known to god’. Though the donor wished to remain anonymous, s/he prays for their own salvation and that of the faithful. The phrase probably alludes to the belief that the names of faithful servants of god were recorded in the Book of Life of the Elect before the foundation of the world (hence the use of the perfect tense ΟΙΔΕΝ which literally translates as ‘he knew (i.e. and continues to know)’). Those whose names were written in the book would attain God’s eternal love and security in heaven.
This formula is well known in Christian epigraphy, with examples attested in a range of media, and from a variety of regions, including Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Gaul, and Africa, most of which date to the fifth and sixth centuries AD. It is found on floor and wall mosaics, a Baptismal font (from Bethlehem), silverware including censers, chalices, and patterns, and other Church objects, such as a processional cross in the Louvre museum. Two silver chalices from the Kumluca Treasure, from Lycia, in Asia Minor (Turkey) bear the same inscription as our censer, as does a hexagonal silver censer from Constantinople, now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (inv. no. 65/46, circa AD 582-602). A bronze censer from Sryia-Palestine also bears the same sentiment, as does a silver-gilt chalice from Attarouthi (Syria), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1986.3.7, AD 500-650). However, it is worth nothing that different regions used different varieties of the verb ‘to know’ in the inscription: οΐδεν, the verb used in our inscription, is commonly found in Asia Minor, Macedonia, the Greek islands such as Crete, Rhodes, and Imbros, and in Cyprus; γινώσκει, on the other hand, is favoured in Palestine/Syria; and, the rarest form, επίσταται, is attested only in Palestine and northwest Anatolia.
The sixth century cross in the Louvre Museum is published in C. Metzger, ‘Chronique des Musées, nouvelles acquisitions, Musée du Louvre…II. Croix à inscription votive’ in Revue du Louvre 22 (1972), pp. 32-34, and the bronze censer from Syria-Palestine can be found in Cl. Mondésert, ‘Inscriptions et objets chrétiens de Syrie et de Palestine’, Syria 37 (1960), pp. 119-124.
For a thorough treatment of the art of this period, K. Weitzmann (ed), Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (New York, 1979).
The formula and different regional variations are discussed in D. Feissel, ‘Receuil des inscriptions chrétiennes de Macédoine, du IIIe au VIe siècle’ in Suppléments au Bulletin de Correspondance Héllenique 8 (1983), p. 100, no. 104.
For the inscriptions and analysis of the silver treasure from Kumluca, I. Ševčenko ‘The Sion Treasure: the Evidence of the Inscriptions’, in S. Boyd and M. Mundell Mango (eds), Ecclesiastical Silver Plate in Sixth-Century Byzantium (Washington, 1993), pp. 39-56, esp. p. 42, text no. 19.
On the importance of ‘Sacred Space’, R. Webb, ‘The Aesthetics of Sacred Space: Narrative, Metaphor, and Motion in Ekphraseis of Church Buildings’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 53 (1999), pp. 59-74.
For discussion of this formulaic inscription and overview of the variants and examples, C. Roueché, ‘Interpreting the Signs: Anonymity and Concealment in Late Antique Inscriptions’ in H. Amirav and B. ter Haar Romney (eds), From Rome to Constantinople: Studies in Honour of Averil Cameron (Leuven, 2007), p. 225-227.
Private Collection, London.
Acquired Temple Gallery, before 1990