Relics & Reliquaries


The British Museum, London
Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum


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This sixth-century ivory pyxis, originally from Alexandria, was reportedly discovered in Rome, in a chapel dedicated to St. Menas in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Pyxides—lidded, circular boxes made to store medicines or cosmetics—were also used as reliquaries.

Menas, born in Egypt, was a soldier in the Roman army who deserted to follow his Christian calling; he was martyred under the Roman emperor Diocletian (245–313) for declaring his faith. Menas is traditionally represented with hands raised in orans posture, flanked by kneeling camels. The iconography alludes to Menas's burial: Athanasios, patriarch of Alexandria, had a vision commanding him to take the saint's body into the desert, and the spot where the camel carrying the body stopped marked the site of his entombment. Following his death and burial, Menas's shrine, southwest of Alexandria near Lake Mareotis, became famous for providing miraculous cures.

One side of this pyxis shows Menas's dramatic martyrdom: a Roman official, seated behind a table with an ink pot, delivers his judgment. Menas kneels before him, hands bound, as a Roman soldier holds him by the hair, raising his sword in readiness to strike the saint's bare neck. An angel waits between the two to catch his soul. The other side shows Menas with his traditional iconography: he stands under an arch supported by spiralled columns, flanked by pilgrims who gesture toward him and two camels that kneel at his feet. A relief of a basket covers the space where the lock once was, suggesting that the box was adapted for another use at a later date.

Naomi C. Speakman