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Fusing of Ancestor Worship and the Cult of Martyrs in Late Fourth Century Gold Glass

Susan Ludi Blevins

Independent Scholar

This paper focuses on the materiality and iconography of late fourth century cut and incised gold glass to explore how the strategic recontextualization of these objects impacted their function as carriers of meaning by prompting contemplation of the future and bringing the past into the present. More than five-hundred examples of gold glass survive, with approximately eighty-five percent bearing biblical scenes, portraits of individuals, or portraits of saints within an image field delineated by a decorative round or polygonal border. Constituted of images in incised gold leaf fused between layers of glass, these vessel bottoms may have originally belonged to objects that their owners used and displayed on special occasions. Most examples, however, have been found with vessel walls broken and the remaining gold glass disc embedded in corridors of fourth-century Roman catacombs above loculi, the recesses that provided final resting places for the Christian dead.

While scholars (e.g. Howells; Grig; Harden) have proposed theories about uses of gold glass vessels by patrons during life (commemoration of people or events; objects of personal devotion; use during Christian feast days; function as liturgical vessels; pontifical promotion of the cult of saints) and their functions in the catacombs (as tomb markers; protective amulets for the dead), less easily explained is the sustained practice by hundreds of individuals over approximately a half-century of repurposing gold glass in the catacombs rather than adorning their final resting places solely with purpose-made objects. In other words, how might we begin to explain the connection between the object during life and its use after death? An approach drawing on the theory of metaintentions suggests that patrons may have chosen, used, and displayed gold glass vessels during life with the intention of deploying them as mnemonic cues in the catacombs after death. The theory of metaintentions underscores the connection between the past (earlier or original use of the object) and the future (later, but not necessarily secondary, use of the object) by holding that prospective memory requires reflecting on our intentions (Smith). While objects may simply serve as memory cues that something needs to be done, such as a string tied around a finger, they may simultaneously serve as reminders of what and how something needs to be done by conveying the substance of the original intention.

I argue that in the fourth century, a time of blurred boundaries between ancestor worship for the ordinary dead and veneration of martyr’s relics and tombs, Rome’s Christian population repurposed gold glass vessels in the catacombs with the intention of ensuring in the minds of future family and community members a material link between the pious life of the deceased and retrospective remembrance. I argue further that the visual elements of gold glass vessels such as luminous materials, sacred iconography, architectural imagery, and close proximity to mortal remains, must have encapsulated to a striking degree the developing visual environment of nearby martyr cults. This visual evocation of martyr cults, especially when combined with ritual practices such as the refrigerium, or offering of funeral feasts suitable for dead relatives and martyrs, suggests that while alive owners of gold glass vessels reflected on the implications of their choices and intended to set the stage for ancestor worship in the future conditioned by the veneration of martyrs. Such vessels bearing images of individuals, saints such as Peter and Paul, and biblical scenes not only reminded viewers of the deceased, but as at saints’ shrines they conditioned a mode of veneration that generated in family and community members a feeling of pilgrimage and a desire to commune with the sacred.

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Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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