Byzantine; Made in the eastern Mediterranean
33 x 35 in. (83.8 x 88.9 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.57)
Narrative scenes such as this made visible the words of the Gospels. On one side of this pyxis, in a scene based on the Gospel of Luke (24:110), three womenthe Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, mother of Jamesstand with their hands raised in the orant (prayer) pose. On the other side of the box, two of the Marys swing censers as they approach a domed space where tied-back curtains reveal an altar illuminated by a suspended lamp. The iconography of the altar area is familiar from the fifth-century Pola Ivory (Museo Archeologico, Venice), a representation of the sanctuary area of Old Saint Peter's in Rome.
On the altar is the Gospel book. In the early church, the altar became understood as the symbol of Christ's tomb; this conflation is partially based on the fact that the Eucharistic elements were placed on the altar during the liturgy, and specially preserved portions reposed on the altar for use during emergencies. Ivory containers, like this finely carved example worked from a cross section of an elephant's tusk, may have been used to carry the bread of the Eucharist to those too ill or elderly to attend the service.