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Prayer and Protection Objects

Pilgrim Flask Mold of Saint Simeon the Stylite

End of 6th or early 7th century AD
Antioch, Turkey. Gift of R. W. Gillman, 1952. KM 87517

This mold for a pilgrim flask depicts Saint Simeon the Younger (d. 592), who chose to dwell on top of a column (stylos in Greek)—a display of asceticism much admired by Eastern Christian communities in Late Antiquity. This extreme form of self-mortification (involving exposure to the elements, sleep deprivation, and fasting) was believed to imbue the saint’s body, and everything it touched, with healing powers. In the accompanying inscription, the flask, which would have contained dust collected from the base of the column, is described as a “blessing” (eulogia). Simeon is here depicted as a monk, wearing a pointed hood and a cowl, and holding in both hands a book with his teachings. Above, two angels crown him for his ascetic accomplishments, and below stand Saint Simeon’s mother Martha (right) and dearest disciple Konon (left), whom he healed from the plague. Comparable objects suggest that this flask mold most likely dates to the earliest phase of the saint’s cult—that is, the late 6th or first half of the 7th century.

Church of Saint Simeon the Stylite

The Church of Saint Simeon the Stylite, close to Aleppo, Syria. Started in the 5th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the oldest churches in the world. Over the centuries, Christian pilgrims of all denominations have traveled to this church marking the spot of Saint Simeon’s column. Recently, this architectural complex has suffered damage due to ongoing conflict and archaeological looting in Syria.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2010.

Fragment of Saint Menas Shrine Pilgrim Flask

Coptic Period (6th century AD)
Probably Abu Mena, Egypt. Gift of A. Boak, 1960. KM 88209

This pilgrim flask (ampulla in Latin) comes from the shrine of Saint Menas (Abu Mena) located in the Egyptian desert, about 30 miles southwest of Alexandria. Its purpose was to contain a healing substance for the pilgrim to bring home, such as blessed water drawn from a nearby sacred spring or oil collected from lamps burning at the saint’s tomb. The widespread popularity of this saint in the Early Byzantine period (6th–7th centuries), documented by the many flasks of this type found across the Mediterranean region, had little to do with his renunciation of military life or even with his martyrdom. Rather, his success had to do with the miracles performed by his body after his death—an interest reflected in the object’s iconography. Made of molded clay in two parts and joined at the neck, this flask includes relief decoration on both of its sides. The front, shown here, depicts Saint Menas standing frontally with his arms raised in the orans position, a gesture of prayer and blessing. He is flanked by two small Greek crosses, and below him kneel two camels, making for a perfectly symmetrical composition. This image likely refers to the miracle that led to the saint’s burial at Abu Mena, as the camel that was transporting his body stopped there and could not be moved. It thus highlights the importance of the shrine in the collective imagination of medieval Christian pilgrims, as well as the active role played by the site in the perceived effectiveness of the healing process.

Amulet of Rider with Nimbus

Bronze, copper
Byzantine Syria or Palestine (early 6th century AD)
Syria. Ayvaz purchase, 1941. KM 26119

This large amulet was cast in bronze and engraved, its hole drilled at the top to allow for suspension. Its front shows a haloed horseman spearing a lion-bodied female creature, while an angel holds a staff and points to the vanquished demon. The figures are not named, but two Greek-language inscriptions guide the viewer’s interpretation of the scene. The first, to the rider’s right, states, “One God who conquers evil,” while the psalm “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will abide in the care of the God of heaven […]” is engraved around the rim. Images and texts here work in tandem to invoke divine protection for the amulet’s wearer. Comparison with similar objects produced in the Syria-Palestine region suggests that the holy horseman might be identified either with the Old Testament prophet Solomon, whose power over demons is well-attested in Jewish, Christian, and later Islamic traditions, or with the semi-mythical Saint Sisinnius of Antioch. Both figures are said to have fought a female demon who attacked and killed infants, named Ovyzouth and Gyoulla respectively, variants of the ancestral she-devil Lilith. It is thus possible that this amulet was meant to protect pregnant women and mothers of newborn children above all.

Amulet with Magic Square and the
Seven Sleepers of Ephesus

Copper alloy or bronze
20th century AD
Cairo, Egypt. W. H. Worrell purchase, 1936. KM 80681

This Islamic pendant amulet, which was meant to be worn thanks to its suspension loop, includes Arabic-language inscriptions on both of its sides. On its front, it includes the statement “Oh, Protector” (Ya Hafiz), calling upon God to provide succor for its wearer. Below the invocation appears a circle of intersecting words, creating a five-pointed star—itself thought to act like a shield against evil forces. The words provide the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (ahl al-kahf), legendary figures believed to protect individuals from harm, houses from burning, and ships from sinking. It thus telescopes an array of devices, both calligraphic and geometric, to maximize protection for its owner. Christian and Muslim pilgrims to Ephesus, located in modern-day Turkey, still visit the cave associated with the Seven Sleepers. This amulet, made in Egypt during the 20th century, reveals the continued popular belief in the protective quality of the Seven Sleepers across the Islamic world into the modern period.

Tirāz Textile Fragment with Inscription

Cotton with resist-dyed warp (ikat), ink, gold paint
Yemeni (10th–12th century AD)
Cairo, Egypt. P. Tano purchase, 1934. KM 22621

This inscribed textile, or tiraz, pictured here is made by resist-dyeing the warp threads prior to weaving the cloth, in this case in light-blue and beige pigments. Moreover, it includes an Arabic-language inscription painted in gold ink, which reads, “Dominion belongs to Him [God]” (al-mulk lahu). This benediction states that ultimate power—including over life and death—is the prerogative of God alone. On the one hand, this statement is appropriate for a burial shroud, believed to both consecrate and protect the deceased’s body. On the other, it is also found on luxury robes, through which wearers could not only flaunt their wealth but also promote their humility. This medieval Islamic textile thus combines prayer and protection, weaving both into the realm of fabric arts.