Brescia Casket

The Brescia Casket or Lipsanotheca (in Italian Lipsanoteca[1]) is an ivory box, perhaps a reliquary,[2] from the late 4th century, which is now in the Museo di Santa Giulia at San Salvatore in Brescia, Italy. It is a virtually unique survival of a complete Early Christian ivory box in generally good condition. The 36 subjects depicted on the box represent a wide range of the images found in the evolving Christian art of the period,[3] and their identification has generated a great deal of art-historical discussion, though the high quality of the carving has never been in question. According to one scholar: "despite an abundance of resourceful and often astute exegesis, its date, use, provenance, and meaning remain among the most formidable and enduring enigmas in the study of early Christian art".[4]

Brescia Casket

The complex iconography of the five faces is illustrated and identified below.


The box was made by a northern Italian workshop, probably in Milan, where Saint Ambrose was bishop, and engaged in a struggle with the Arian heresy. Milan has long been considered the most likely place of origin, which has been further strengthened after the insignia on the shields of the soldiers were identified as those of a unit of the Palatine Guards stationed in Milan in the late 4th century, when Milan was the usual residence of the Imperial court. The Notitia Dignitatum in the Bodleian Library in Oxford records these designs.[5] One theory, discussed below, identifies the date very precisely to soon after 386, when Ambrose successfully led the Orthodox population in a confrontation with the Arian-leaning Imperial court.[6] It has also been suggested that it was used for the relics of Gervasius and Protasius, two Milanese Roman martyr saints whose remains were translated (dug up and moved) in Ambrose's time, as recorded in a letter of his; this was one of the earliest translations recorded.[7] The silver lock plate is later, probably from the 8th century, and later metal hinges were removed in 1928.

It is not known when it entered the keeping of the convent of San Salvatore, Brescia, but it may well have been soon after it was founded in 753 by Desiderius, last of the Lombard kings. Whatever its original function it was used as a reliquary in the Middle Ages, and was referred to in monastery documents as the "ivory sepulchre", possibly because it contained a stone taken from the empty tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It played a special role in the convent's Easter liturgy, when in the early part of the Easter Vigil it was opened and the contents displayed to the congregation.[8]

In 1798, with the suppression of the convent after the Napoleonic invasion, it was transferred to the Biblioteca Queriniana, the main library in Brescia, and in 1882 transferred to the museum that, after some moves, since 1999 has occupied part of the old convent home of the box. At some point during this period it was dismantled and the panels displayed laid out flat on a board forming a cross shape with a frame. The box was restored and re-assembled in 1928.[9]


The Brescia Casket dismantled and framed, as it was displayed before 1928

The casket is rectangular, with five faces, four sides and a lid, held together by an internal framework of walnut wood, replaced when the casket was returned to its proper format in 1928, when the current short ivory feet were also added. Numerous carved ivory plaques are attached to the framework, carrying the decoration, with most zones of decoration on their own individual plaques. The casket measures 22 cm high, 32 cm wide and 25 cm deep.[10]

The casket is covered with a profusion of small religious scenes carved in ivory relief, drawn from both the Old and New Testaments. The lid, which may be regarded as the most important face of a small box such as this, has the largest reliefs, with five scenes from the Passion of Christ in two registers, and a small top register with a frieze of birds. All the four sides follow a design with a middle register containing relatively large New Testament subjects. Above and below this are narrower registers with Old Testament scenes, and at the corners thin vertical images, only one containing a human figure, the rest symbolic objects. The top of the side faces is finished with a register, actually the sides of the lid, of busts of male figures in slightly flattened round clipea frames. Two of these are missing; there would have been a total of 17 originally, with five on the front, four on the back and four, one now missing, on each side. A young beardless Jesus is agreed to occupy the centre of the front panel, and he is probably surrounded by the Twelve Apostles, with Saint Paul substituting for Judas, making 13. Saints Peter and Paul are presumed to be the two older men with long beards flanking Jesus. The remaining four heads, presumably those on the back face, might be the Four Evangelists, which would mean repetition of subjects, or other saints.[11]

The selection of incidents was long thought not to follow a specific programme, although Delbrueck in his monograph of 1939 was able to show that the majority of the scenes, including many of the rare ones, depicted events covered in the lectionary readings for the period of Lent and Easter that were used in Milan in Ambrose's time, about which we have a reasonable amount of information from Ambrose's surviving writings.[12] Andre Grabar in 1969 wrote that "It is easy to establish the lack of any link (by likes or opposites) between the scenes on the two borders (Old Testament) and those of the central panel (New Testament)".[13]

However recent studies have proposed that the casket in fact shows a coherent and carefully thought out programme, comprehending both Old and New Testament scenes, though the underlying aims of this have been interpreted differently. Many of the scenes are very rarely depicted in surviving art, and several have had new identifications proposed in recent decades.[14] For Carolyn Joslin Watson, in a thesis of 1977 and an article in Gesta in 1981, the key to the programme lies in Milanese church politics of the time, and Ambrose's battle with the Arians. For Catherine Brown Tkacz, in a book of 2001, the main purpose of the programme is to state through typology the essential unity of the two parts of the Christian Bible, an aim common in later medieval art, which was previously thought not to have been found so early.

The identification of many of the scenes remains uncertain, with new identifications having been proposed only recently,[15] and not all identifications agreed between, for example, Watson in 1981, Tkacz in 2001 and Bayens in 2004.[16] The primary identifications here follow Watson, sometimes mentioning alternatives. Watson's notes summarize most but not all other identifications.[17] For example, the scene on the back panel that Watson calls the Calling of Andrew and Peter by Jesus, which she admits is a rare subject not otherwise known in a similar composition, is called the Transfiguration of Christ by Tkacz, followed by Bayens and a number of reviewers. That would also be an unusual depiction, though of a far more common subject. The key difference in reading the image is whether the wavy lines the figures stand on represent cloud or water. All three authors are able to relate the subject they have chosen to their differing interpretations of the overall scheme of decoration.[18]


frieze of birds, with nets or fabric[19]
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane Arrest of Christ Denial of Peter, with crowing cock
Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas Pontius Pilate "washes his hands" of Jesus


Apostle Apostle - Peter? Jesus Apostle - Paul? Apostle
Fish Jonah swallowed by the whale Silver lock with geometric motifs Jonah cast up by the whale Cock
Healing of the woman with an issue of blood (the haemorrhoissa) Christ teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth[20] Parable of the Lost Sheep
Susanna and the witnesses Trial of Susanna Daniel in the lion's den

Right sideEdit

missing Apostle Apostle Apostle
Tree Moses on Mount Horeb[21] Death of the Seven Maccabean martyrs[22] Moses receives the Tablets of the Law Scales
Healing of the Man born Blind Resurrection of Lazarus
Jacob and Rachel at the well Jacob Wrestling with the Angel Jacob's Ladder

Left sideEdit

Apostle Apostle Apostle missing
Cross David kills Goliath Death of the Man of God[23] Jeroboam at the Altar of Bethel[24] Lampstand
Resurrection of the daughter of Jairus
Worship of the Golden Calf Feast for the Golden Calf


Apostle, Evangelist or saint Apostle, Evangelist or saint Apostle, Evangelist or saint Apostle, Evangelist or saint
Tower Susanna as orans Jonah lying under the gourd Daniel and the Dragon[25] Hanged man, probably Judas
Jesus calling Andrew and Peter, or the Transfiguration[26] Judgement of Ananias and Sapphira; Sapphira Ananias being carried away
Finding of Moses[27] Moses kills the Egyptian[28] Feast in the House of Jethro[29]


Probably the closest direct comparison to the Brescia casket is the Pola Casket, found in a fragmentary condition under a church floor in Istria in 1906, which has fewer scenes, and those rather more conventional.[30] Another smaller casket, now dismantled, with four Passion scenes is in the British Museum,[31] which is also the home of most of the panels of the much later Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket (one panel is in the Bargello Museum, Florence). This has only one Christian scene, with others from northern myth and Mediterranean history, and includes texts which mingle Latin and Old English in both Roman letters and Anglo-Saxon runes. However it shares with the Brescia Casket great programmic complexity, and an equal ability to arouse scholarly debate; it seems clear that the full meaning of both boxes would have represented a puzzle, or riddle, even to well-educated contemporaries used to the iconographies of their respective periods.[32]


  1. ^ "Lipsanotheca" is from the Greek λειψανοθήκη, for relic-container
  2. ^ It was certainly used as one later and this remains the most likely purpose. See Watson, 290 and 297, note 63. Only Bayens, 6 and elsewhere, suggests that it was a box for alms.
  3. ^ Watson says 35, Stella 36, but Watson counts the Ananias and Sapphira scenes as two; other sources give different figures, depending how the figures are divided in scenes.
  4. ^ Mc Grath, 257
  5. ^ Watson, 283
  6. ^ Watson's main subject
  7. ^ Ambrose, 204(?)-212
  8. ^ Stella, 348
  9. ^ Stella, 348; some writers have questioned the correctness of this reconstruction, notably Christ and Kessler [1]
  10. ^ Stella, 347; Watson, 284 and note 10
  11. ^ Watson, 284, described in detail in later pages. Page 284 note 11, and 290 on the clipea.
  12. ^ Watson, 283, 293-294 note 6
  13. ^ Grabar, 137-138, 138 quoted; Watson, 283; Mc Grath, 257
  14. ^ Watson's notes, many cited individually below, summarize most of the suggestions
  15. ^ Watson, 283;
  16. ^ See below: the figures in flames, and the Transfiguration (Tkacz and Bayens) or Calling of Andrew and Peter (Watson) are examples.
  17. ^ Watson describes the scenes at 285-290, with most of the alternatives in her notes 11-38 on pp. 294-296
  18. ^ Watson 295, note 25, lists several other subjects that have been suggested, though not Jesus walking on the Lake of Galilee, which has had support in the past. Tkacz is one of those proposing the Transfiguration of Christ, see Andreopoulos, 106-108. Bayens, 12 agrees.
  19. ^ Identified by some as European rollers (Coracias garrulus), a kind of exotic blue and orange jackdaw, migrating to Italy and much of southern Europe from Africa in the summer. See Bayens, 14
  20. ^ Luke 4,16-21, Watson, 285 and 294, note 15. Jesus teaching the Apostles and Jesus and the doctors in the Temple are other suggestions.
  21. ^ Watson, 288; Exodus 3, 1-5
  22. ^ Watson, 288; 2 Maccabees, 7; preferred by Watson, following Mc Grath, and by others to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the "Fiery Furnace", Book of Daniel, 1-3, for which there are too many figures. However Tkacz sticks to this identification, as a depiction of two points in the episode.
  23. ^ I Kings, 13, 24
  24. ^ I Kings, 12 33; 13, 4
  25. ^ Daniel, XIV, 27, or Moses and the serpent
  26. ^ Watson 295, note 25, lists several other subjects that have been suggested, though not Jesus walking on the Lake of Galilee, which has had support in the past. Tkacz is one of those proposing the Transfiguration of Christ, see Andreopoulos, 106-108. Bayens, 12 agrees. The wavy lines the figures stand on either represent cloud or water.
  27. ^ Exodus II, 5-10
  28. ^ Exodus II, 12
  29. ^ Exodus II, 20
  30. ^ Soper, 153-157; illustrated Weitzmann, 595
  31. ^ Photo
  32. ^ Webster, 92


  • Ambrose, ed. & tr. by John Hugo Wolfgang Gideon Liebeschuetz, Ambrose Of Milan: Political Letters And Speeches (google preview), 2005, Liverpool University Press, ISBN 0853238294, 9780853238294; full text Ambrose of Milan: Letter 22: The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, Fordham
  • Andreopoulos, Andreas, Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology And Iconography, 2005, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, ISBN 0881412953, ISBN 9780881412956, google books
  • Bayens, Patrick James, The Brescia Casket: Patristic Exegesis and Biblical Iconography on an Early Christian Alms Box, 2004, University of Kentucky, preview
  • Grabar, Andre, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins, 1968, Bollingen Series XXXV, 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780631218555, google books (reprint)
  • Mc Grath, Robert L., "The Martyrdom of the Maccabees on the Brescia Casket", 1965, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun., 1965), pp. 257–261, JSTOR
  • Milburn, Robin, Early Christian Art, 1988, University of California Press, ISBN 0520074122, 9780520074125, google books
  • Soper, Alexander Coburn, "The Italo-Gallic School of Early Christian Art", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1938), pp. 145–192, JSTOR
  • Stella, Clara, La Lipsanoteca in Renata Stradiotti (ed.), San Salvatore - Santa Giulia a Brescia. Il monastero nella storia, Skira, Milano 2001 (in Italian)
  • Tkacz, Catherine Brown, The Key to the Brescia casket: typology and the Early Christian imagination, 2002, University of Notre Dame Press (Paris 2001 first)
  • Watson, Carolyn Joslin, The Program of the Brescia Casket, 1981, Gesta, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1981), pp. 283–298, JSTOR
  • Webster, Leslie, Anglo-Saxon Art, 2012, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714128092
  • Weitzmann, Kurt, ed., Age of spirituality : late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century, 1979, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ISBN 9780870991790; full text available online from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries.
  • includes material translated from the Italian WP article "Lipsanoteca di Brescia"

Further readingEdit


  • Kollwitz, Johannes, Die Lipsanothek von Brescia, 1933, W. de Gruyter (in German)
  • Delbrueck, Richard, Probleme der Lipsanothek in Brescia, 1952, Bonn, P. Hanstein (in German)


  • Watson, Carolyn Joslin, The Program of the Brescia Casket (thesis), 1977, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

External linksEdit