The Byzantine era was dominated by Christianity, which had gone from being a marginal cult of late antiquity to the ruling force of the day. The Church’s power was supreme and religion infiltrated all aspects of daily life. This plaque is but one example of the myriad devotional objects that Byzantine citizens carried around with them. The stoic carving depicts the soldier-saint Demetrios, one of the more popular saints of the times; this piece was probably worn suspended from the neck or wrist as a protective amulet or good luck charm and most likely belonged to a member of the military.
This small rectangular plaque is thickly carved form a single piece of steatite. The ground is occupied by a frontal bust of a stern young man in military garb. He wears a mailed cuirass over which is knotted a cloak.mPart of a round shield appears in the lower right hand corner and his hand holds his spear to the left. The man’s face is smooth and clean-shaven, a bit long with a pronounced chin and large ears. The almond-shaped eyes are large and staring with pinpoint pupils. The nose is long and broad at the base, the mouth small and straight with slightly upturned corners. His hairstyle is a heavy cap of long, straight locks that are brushed forward over the forehead, framing the face. A plain nimbus is incised into the steatite around the head, identifying the figure as a saint. On the spaces on either side of the head a Greek inscription is incised: O A(ΓΙΟΣ) ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΟC (The Holy Demetrios).
A raised rectangular border is carved into the edges of the plaque, framing the central figure in bas-relief. The stone is set in a plain bronze fitting, secured by rivets on the sides and the bottom that are still intact. A suspension loop for hanging, probably also in bronze, would have been attached via the small hole on the upper edge.
Saint Demetrios was one of a number of military saints who enjoyed a long period of popularity during Byzantine times. Once a member of the Roman legions, he was martyred in the early fourth century AD during the Christian persecutions under emperor Diocletian or Galerius. Given his history, Demetrios was a popular subject for the personal icons or reliquaries (encolpia) that people carried around with them. Soldiers often wore such amulets into battle in the hopes that the saint would protect them and give them victory. The style of this miniature icon matches images of the saint from the late thirteenth to fourteenth century AD. A steatite icon of the saint from this period in the Kremlin’s collection in Moscow provides an excellent parallel for the style of our piece, from the straight, bowl-like hair to the boyish face and military trappings. Another, firmly fourteenth century parallel is the large steatite icon of Demetrios in the Louvre (inv. no. OA 11219). The depiction of the saint is very close to the Kremlin’s example, and this consistency in the iconography makes it easier to confidently date our piece to this period as well.
Images in steatite like ours started to appear in the eleventh century, just as ivory carvings started to disappear. Scholars hypothesize that disruptions in trade with sources such as Africa and India led to the embracing of steatite for its clear creamy color and most importantly, availability. Most carved steatite production seems to have been based in Constantinople, where icons and figures such as our plaque were created as personal devotional items for the Byzantine upper classes.
Provenance: Private Collection, Eastern Europe, since 1980s
London Art Market, rec. inv. 313CFASS