Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.11

Marie Christine Comte, Les Reliquaires du Proche-Orient et de Chypre à la période protobyzantine (IVe-VIIIe siècles): formes, emplacements, fonctions et cultes. Bibliothèque de l’antiquité tardive 20​.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2012.  Pp. 510.  ISBN 9782503542126.  €95.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Wendy Mayer, Centre for Early Christian Studies, Australian Catholic University (

Comte’s detailed study of Near Eastern and Cypriot reliquaries from the late-antique period is one of seven titles published by Brepols in 2012 in their rapidly expanding series ‘Bibliothèque de l’antiquité tardive’. Approached largely from the perspectives of archaeology and regional typology, the study is divided into two parts. Part One addresses questions of composition and form of reliquaries, their location within buildings, their inscriptions, their functions, modes of veneration and associated cult. The second part comprises a catalogue of all of the reliquaries discovered prior to January 2009 in the provinces of Syria I and II, Euphratensis, Phoenicia I and II, Arabia, Palestine I, II and III, and Cyprus in the designated time period.1 The catalogue itself is prompted by the large number of new discoveries over recent decades. More than 400 photographs, floor plans, maps, and drawings illustrate both parts, accompanied by multiple lists and tables. The volume concludes with a detailed bibliography, a site index, and seven-page summary of the chapter contents of Part One in English.

The remainder of this review focuses on Comte’s analysis. The three chapters that precede Part One cover in brief the archaeological and literary sources and essential historical background: the history of research (pre-1970, from the 1970s to 1990s, and the acceleration in discoveries since the 1990s); the history of the provinces and their sees (most noticeably the parallel creation of the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem and the forced independence of Cyprus); and the development from martyrs to martyr cult to cult of the saints to reliquaries (and their off-spin, eulogiai).

Chapter 4 gives the basic results of systematic analysis of the form and composition of the bodies (including interior compartments), lids, modes of veneration (points of contact or the passage of liquid through them), closure mechanisms, material of composition, decoration (with the exception of inscriptions), and places of manufacture, accompanied by illustrative drawings and photographs. Composition ranges from wood, glass, and metal to stone (chiefly marble, limestone, and basalt). Decoration is not uniform (its absence constitutes an additional category) and ranges from crosses of varying types via geometric designs, medallions and circles to the rare animal, tree, busts of saints, or human figure. In some cases the designs display regional or local influence. An argument is made for the fabrication of reliquaries in a standard format that is subsequently customized for the number of relics to be inserted.

Chapter 5 plays a key role in the catalogue that constitutes Part Two. Here Comte establishes six principal types (small sarcophagus, chest, cippus, niche, capsella, flask), further differentiated by mode of veneration (holes for contact or circulation of oil in a variety of locations). The chapter includes careful discussion of rare exceptions, possible associations between region and type, and the difficult problem of dating.

Chapter 6 focuses on the placement and spatial context of the reliquaries (in the apse, under or in the altar, in the floor of a room or rooms adjacent to the apse or end of an aisle, in niches, in the martyrion, and, more rarely, at one end of the nave, in a crypt, or in the baptistery). Tentative conclusions about provincial and regional peculiarities (Syria) and consistency in changes over time (Arabia and the Negev) and their underlying causes enrich the analysis. Absent here is discussion and resolution of minor disagreement about a peculiarity attributed to churches of Syria I (Antioch and the limestone massif) and Euphratensis (Resafa) – whether the sockets located in the floor of the U-shaped bema of some churches indicate the presence of an altar and/or a table for the display of a reliquary. Given that this discussion tends to be attached to debate about the liturgical function of the U-shaped bema peculiar to the churches of north-west Syria rather than to the discussion of reliquaries,2 its absence in a work of such scope is understandable.

Chapter 7 assesses the few inscriptions that occur across the corpus (one in Syriac, the majority in Greek). These either name the saint(s) or, in an ex voto formula, the dedicand(s). Comte supplements this scanty evidence with discussion of inscriptions that name saints on church lintels and flagstones in these provinces, and tentatively draws conclusions about regional preferences.

Chapter 8, which concludes Part One, offers insights into the significance and function of these reliquaries within the Near Eastern cult of the saints. The most important conclusions overall concern the interdependence of the veneration of saints and the eucharist in Palestine and Arabia, as opposed to the clear separation found in northern Syria (Syria I and II); the unique character of niche reliquaries carved into the church wall and equipped with a ‘flowing oil’ system, typical of the Antioch region; and the influence of the ritual practices of other provinces and bishops (not just the governing patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch) on modes of veneration. The documentation of changes over time, especially the addition of screens or the permanent fixture of formerly portable reliquaries in altars, makes a further contribution.

As an up-to-date, comprehensive catalogue and scientific analysis of Near Eastern reliquaries of late antiquity, Comte’s study fills a significant gap and provides a sound work of reference. The methodology and rationale are articulated in a clear and precise way; the reader is taken step by step through the evidence; the evidence itself is sorted into clearly defined types; each reliquary is carefully sorted by site and region; and reliquaries of doubtful or unknown provenance are carefully distinguished. The illustrations are invaluable. The setting within its broader context of material previously presented in individual site studies – for example, the finds from the churches of the limestone massif3 or from Resafa4 or Apamea5 in Syria – or in more narrowly defined regional studies – for example, Jordan6 – is particularly welcome. ​


1.   Cyprus is included partly for comparative purposes and partly because of its initial inclusion under the patriarchate of Syrian Antioch. Comte admits that part of the western region of modern Turkey could also have been included on the basis of the relationship between Euphratensis and Cilicia, but confines herself to the above regions because of her greater familiarity with them.
2.   See Emma Loosley, The Architecture and Liturgy of the Bema in Fourth- to Sixth-century Syrian Churches (Texts and Studies in Eastern Christianity 1, Leiden 2012), 28-30, re Kafr Nebo and Basilica A at Resafa, interpreting the evidence as both altar and temporary display; and Edgar Baccache, Églises de village de la Syrie du nord, 1 (IFAPO, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 105, Documents d’archéologie: La Syrie à l’époque de l’empire romain d’orient, No 1, Paris, 1979), 310-29, and Georges Tchalenko, Églises syriennes à bêma: Texte (IFAPO, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 105, Paris, 1990), 209-10, interpreting at least one of these (Basilica A at Resafa) as a rectangular stone base beneath a canopy which was used simply for the occasional display of a stone reliquary. In our book on the evidence for Antioch (Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen, The Churches of Syrian Antioch (300-638 CE) (Late Antique History and Religion 5, Leuven, 2012), 209-13), we argued against the location of an altar on the bema and that the evidence from the ‘Church of St Babylas’ supported the latter interpretation. In Part Two Comte (pp. 288-92, 323-25, 394-95) publishes floor plans of three churches that include these structures (the two mentioned and the west church at Behyo), but naturally focuses on the actual reliquaries found. In Part One (p. 96) she notes the association of tables (of indeterminate use) with reliquaries, but outside of Syria I.
3.   Baccache, Églises de village; Tchalenko, Églises syriennes à bêma.
4.   Th. Ulbert, Resafa II. Die Basilika des Heiligen Kreuzes in Resafa-Sergiopolis (Mainz, 1986); and Gunnar Brands, Resafa VI: Die Bauornamentik von Resafa-Sergiupolis. Studien zur spätantiken Architektur und Bauausstattung in Syrien und Nordmesopotamien (Mainz, 2002).
5.   Jean-Charles Balty and Jean Napoleone-Lémaire, L’Église à atrium de la grande colonnade. Fouilles d’Apamée de Syrie I, I (Centre belge de recherches archéologiques à Apamée de Syrie, Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Bruxelles, 1969); and Janine Balty and Jean-Charles Balty (eds), Apamée de Syrie: Bilan de recherches archéologiques 1969-1971. Fouilles d’Apamée de Syrie (Miscellanea fasc. 7, Bruxelles, 1972).
6.   Anne Michel, Les Églises d’époque byzantine et umayyade de la Jordanie: Ve-VIIIe siècle. Typologie architecturale et aménagements liturgiques (Bibliothèque de l’Antiquité tardive 2, Turnhout, 2001); and her earlier article, ‘Le culte des reliques dans les églises byzantines de Jordanie’, Hortus artium medievalium 5 (1999) 31-40. ​

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