Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Creating an International Visitor Attraction in 5th century Egypt: the Story of Abu Mina and the Pyxis of St. Menas

Hugh Thomson - MSc Late Antique, Byzantine and Islamic Studies 

Alexander Nesbitt, an English visitor to Rome, acquired a small ivory box from a dealer in antiquities sometime before 15th June 1871. The box, 8 cm high and 10.7 cm across, is now in the British Museum (British Museum accession number 1879, 1220.1). It has lost its hinged cover, its base, and the lock which once kept its contents secure. The rim is chipped in places and the fine carving smoothed with wear (Weitzmann 1979).

Similar small round boxes (Greek: pyxis) were used since ancient times as containers for cosmetics. In an ecclesiastical context, a pyxis containing consecrated bread for the sick was one of only two items allowed to be stored on a church altar (Nesbitt and Garrucci 1874). Nesbitt’s learned friend, Padre Raffaelle Garrucci, noted in 1871 that the iconography on this particular pyxis was inappropriate for this purpose. However, he, and others since, overlooked a feature which suggests that this conclusion may not be correct.      

Figure 1. Pyxis (British Museum)
The contents of the basket on the ground behind the seated figure are probably loaves of bread; identical representation occurs on a fragmentary pyxis from Syria, also in the British Museum, which clearly shows the distribution of bread from a similar woven basket.

Figure 2. Daniel Pyxis (British Museum)

The style of the carving on Nesbitt’s pyxis is consistent with that of consular diptychs of the early sixth-century. Scholars disagree on the location of the workshop in which these artefacts were produced, but “the attribution of the diptychs to Alexandria, or at least to an atelier of Alexandrian style and tradition operating in Constantinople, is supported by some very serious considerations” (Morey 1941, p. 45).

The iconography on the pyxis is in three parts – a scene of judgment, an execution and the representation of a saint standing as an orant beneath an arch, attended by two female and two male pilgrims.

Figure 3. St. Menas (British Museum)

The saint depicted is Menas, patron saint of Coptic Egypt. In 1942 he was credited by Patriarch Christopher II with stopping the German advance on Alexandria when it approached the site of his original shrine, not far from El Alamein. His image, standing with arms outstretched between two camels’ heads is “the most immediately recognisable of all such images” (Montserrat 1998, p. 270). Clay flasks, which once contained oil sanctified by contact with the soil above his tomb, are found throughout the territory of the Roman empire – in Britain, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, France, Italy and Greece, as well as in Egypt and North Africa.          

Figure 4. Pilgrim flask (Louvre)
Who was this Egyptian saint and how did he acquire his international reputation? Nothing is known about his life – a Greek Martyrdom, written by Cyrus of Panopolis following his exile to Cotyaeum in Phrygia in 441, presents Menas as an Egyptian soldier martyred in Asia Minor whose remains were returned to Egypt, but “no serious scholar accepts this” (Drescher 1946, p. i).

The pyxis came from the church of St. Paul without the Walls, which was founded by the Emperor Constantine, rebuilt on a much larger scale by Theodosius and extensively modified under Pope Gregory the Great. Gregory preached a sermon in this church, in a chapel dedicated to Menas (Nesbitt and Garrucci 1874). The original building burned down in 1823 and it seems likely that the pyxis was acquired as salvage after the conflagration.

Excavations at the site of Menas’ shrine at Abu Mina, 43 km west of Alexandria, have established that local villagers erected a small mausoleum of sun-dried mud-brick above the site of a body placed in a pre-existing hypogaeum. During the fourth century, Menas’ shrine, believed locally to have healing powers, was no different from many others scattered across the Egyptian countryside.

Figure 5. Ruins at Abu Mina (Peter Grossmann)

The subsequent development of the site into a sacred city protected by a garrison of 1200 soldiers was the product of sustained efforts during the fifth century, involving both emperors in Constantinople and patriarchs. The principles of classical town-planning were applied. A ceremonial approach street (embolos) led to a large rectangular square with colonnaded porticoes on all four sides; the street narrows as it approaches the square “to raise the tension of pilgrims arriving for the first time” (Grossmann 1998, p.287). The two main churches were south of this square – one, above Menas’ tomb, was built early in the fifth century. The other, the largest in Egypt at the time, was probably constructed during the reign of Zeno. The city provided pilgrims with lodgings, bath-houses, shops, markets and depositories “where the multitude could leave their clothes and baggage” (Drescher 1946, p.147-8). Hospices, rest-houses and watering-places were established along the route from Alexandria.

Figure 6. Centre of Abu Mina (Peter Grossmann)

These major investments delivered important practical benefits, in addition to the increase of prestige of both imperial and patriarchal administrations. The cult was a unifying feature in an ecclesiastical province in danger of falling apart; pilgrimages and festivals helped with social control, a major problem in Alexandria; the shrine’s baptisteries provided a venue for the conversion of Egypt’s remaining pagans; money contributed by pilgrims played a significant role in financing the established Church. Indeed, in the ninth century, the patriarch complained to the Arab governor of “the poverty of the church, arising from the interruption of pilgrimages to the church of St Mennas” (Drescher 1946, p. xxvi). Evidence that cooperation between Alexandria and Constantinople delivered benefits was particularly important after the Council of Chalcedon (451) plunged Christian Egypt into a state of confusion.

I believe that the pyxis, all that remains from Menas’ chapel in Rome, was commissioned by the imperial chancellery from the workshop that produced consular diptychs and other official ivories. St. Paul without the Walls was itself a very significant destination for international pilgrims. The pyxis, perhaps a part of a set, prominent on the chapel altar and travelling through the city to the houses of the sick and the dying, was designed to bring the officially-sponsored Egyptian shrine to the attention of both travellers and residents in Rome.

Works Cited

Drescher, J. (1946) Apa Mena: a selection of Coptic texts relating to St. Menas, imprimerie de l'Institut français d'Archéologie orientale.

Grossmann, P. (1998) 'The Pilgrimage Centre of Abu Mina' in Frankfurter, D., ed. Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt, Leiden: Brill.

Montserrat, D. (1998) 'Pilgrimage to the Shrine of SS Cyrus and John at Menouthis in Late Antiquity' in Frankfurter, D., ed. Pilgrimage and Holy Space in Late Antique Egypt, Leiden: Brill.

Morey, C. R. (1941) 'The Early Christian Ivories of the Eastern Empire', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 41-60.

Nesbitt, A. and Garrucci, R. (1874) 'XVIII.—On a Box of Carved Ivory of the Sixth Century', Archaeologia, 44(02), 321-330.

Weitzmann, K. and Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979) Age of spirituality late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century catalogue of the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977, through February 12, 1978 /edited by Kurt Weitzmann, New York: The Museum.