Enkolpion Crosses in the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Bronze Reliquary Cross

Roman Influence

Perhaps the most prominent feature of Byzantine jewellery is the presence of votive items; be it rings or pendants, the religious aspect is consistently present throughout the period. Byzantium (modern day Istanbul) became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire from the 5th century AD onwards, until the conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. Byzantine jewellery was enormously opulent, having inherited the Roman techniques, and was further enriched with gemstones, as the Byzantine jewellers were experts in inlaying, enamel, and intricate metalwork.

Jewellery and Politics

In the Byzantine Empire jewellery played a very important role. It acted as a way to express one’s status and also as a diplomatic tool. In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian decided to regulate the wearing and usage of jewellery through a new set of laws, later to be called the Justinian Code. He explicitly wrote that sapphires, emeralds, and pearls were reserved for the emperor’s use but every free man was entitled to wear a gold ring. This may tell us something about the widespread use and great popularity of jewellery.

Byzantine Bronze Reliquary Cross
Byzantine Enkolpion Reliquary Cross

Enkolpion Crosses

Enkolpion (from the Ancient Greek ἐγκόλπιον, literally “on the chest”; plural ἐγκόλπια, enkólpia) is the term with which we still refer to medallions with icons in the centre worn around the neck by Orthodox and Eastern Catholic bishops. The custom of bearing on the person objects such as enkolpia was derived from the pagan Roman practice of wearing bullae as a protection against incantations. The Church aimed to purify this usage from superstition by substituting objects venerated by Christians for those to which they had been accustomed before conversion.

Enkolpion and Relics

Over the course of the centuries, many of these crosses were produced in such a way as to hold a secondary relic. They might supposedly contain, for example, part of a saint’s clothing, pieces of the True Cross, or hair fragments. The cross was the most popular Christian symbol in Byzantium: it offered protection to the wearer and would have been available all over the Empire.

Byzantine Enkolpion Reliquary Cross
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