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French 13th Century
Pyx in the Form of a Dove
c. 1220/1230 gilded copper with enamel, 18.2 x 22.6 x 19.05 cm
diameter of base: 16.8 cm
diameter of disk: 8.2 cm
height of wall around base: 2.4 cm
height of turrets: 4.1 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
This object was made to hang above a church altar and store Hosts, wafers or bread for the Mass, under the lid on its back. The dove of the Holy Spirit, in this way, is linked symbolically to the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Made in Limoges during the thirteenth century, more than forty of these Eucharistic doves survive. Their popularity probably grew after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirmed Transubstantiation, the theological doctrine that the bread and wine of the Mass are transformed into the presence of Christ.
The doves resemble medieval Islamic bronze birds, many of which served as containers or were made as ornaments on larger objects. Inset eyes of blue or green glass were intended to ward off evil and jealousy. The Limoges dove also shares the usual stylization of bird wings--a scale pattern in front, a vertical band in the middle, and horizontal bands in the back--which descended from ancient Persian textiles. Such wings were still common on birds in the thirteenth-century silks from Islamic Spain that were admired in France. The bodies of birds in the metalwork and ceramics of Islamic Spain are often covered with a scale pattern similar to the Limoges dove.
Compare the pyx with a bird-shaped vessel from the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the design of paired peacocks on a fragment of silk textile from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.