Mutations of a Late Antique Box



Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description The so-called “Lipsanotheca” of Brescia is an iconic early Christian object. This large ivory box, attributed to the end of the fourth century and to Northern Italy, can indeed be found in almost every handbook of the field. Adorned on all sides with carved scenes from the Old and New Testament, it has elicited scholarly interest since the nineteenth century. Art historians have often tried to find in it a program uniting the scenes on the five sides of the box. However, other aspects such as its actual use and function were barely questioned, and it is usually considered without second thoughts as one of the earliest reliquaries of the Christian cult. The present paper wishes to dwell and specifically challenge the notion of object-“biography” as applied to this case study, concretely examining the ways it has survived until us. This analysis will try to trace a “reverse” history of the box, starting from its current musealisation in the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia and going backwards to the moment of its creation in the fourth century. On this path, I will especially focus on the changes of value (material and cultural) and modifications in function of the object. The main stepovers will be, firstly, the period prior to its actual restored state and musealisation in the second half of the twentieth century, when the Brescia casket encountered, as most Late Antique artefacts, a radical process of decontextualization and negation of former functions since it was dismantled and transformed into a cross. Before this change, as we can guess from scarce sources, it was used within the liturgy of the female monastery of Santa Giulia in Brescia, maybe from as early as the eighth century. It is most likely at a close date that it was transformed into a reliquary. Holding relics, in turn, is probably not the original function of the casket. It might have been conceived for private devotion and meditation in a rich milieu of Late Antique Northern Italy. Transversally, I will also examine how and why the value of this object was deemed high enough – at a moment in the Middle Ages or the nineteenth century – for a yet unstudied copy of it to be made. Within this frame, I will then examine how the concept of tracing the history of an object can be employed in order to shed light on the one hand on its reception within art history, on the other hand on how the changing values of an object must help us to arrive to new understandings of “mute” artefacts