The David Plates Revisited: Transforming the Secular in Early Byzantium

Article excerpt

The set of nine early seventh-century silver plates known as the David Plates (Figs. 1-9) make regular appearances in most general surveys of the art of the early Byzantine period and are well known to students and specialists in the field alike.1 Since their discovery in Cyprus in 1902, these outstanding examples of early Byzantine silver have so often been cited as a chapter in the stylistic and iconographic development of Byzantine art that it may come as a surprise to many to learn that they were not studied as an independent entity until the 1970s, when a succession of five articles by different authors appeared within the short space of just eight years, between 1970 and 1978.2 Remarkably, four out of these five-whose authors appear to have chosen to work on the plates independently, rather than in response to each other-proposed broadly similar interpretations of the plates' iconography and function, which continue to be accepted without question by scholars today. However, more than twenty years later, the David Plates are ripe for reassessment. Since the earlier studies of them were published, the work of historians such as Averil Cameron and Peter Brown has given us access to a more nuanced understanding of early Byzantine society.3 This article offers a critique of the prevailing academic opinion of the plates' meaning and function, arguing that they should be understood in the context of the domestic sympotic function for which, as expensive display pieces of tableware, they were designed, and in relation to the late antique tradition of such tableware and its uses. Rather than seeing the plates as vehicles of imperial self-representation, as did the authors of the earlier articles, I locate their meaning in the area of the Christianization of the domestic sphere in this period.

The David Plates comprise a set of nine circular silver plates in three different sizes: one large plate (19 1/2 inches, or 49.4 centimeters in diameter), four medium-size plates (10 1/4 inches, or 26 centimeters), and four small plates (5 1/2 inches, or 14 centimeters). The shape of each is similar, with a slightly concave surface, a rolled rim, and a high foot ring. Each plate is marked on the reverse inside the,foot ring with control stamps from the years 613-29/30 in the reign of the emperor Heraclius (610-41).4 Between them, the plates depict a series of events in the early life of David, as related in chapters 16:12-18:27 of the first Old Testament book of Samuel (in the Greek Septuagint, 1 Kings), from David's anointing by Samuel to his confrontation with Goliath and his marriage to Saul's daughter. The most important event of the narrative is clearly the battle with Goliath, which is depicted in three registers on the largest plate (Fig. 1). The top register portrays David's challenge to Goliath, the central register (where the figures are largest) the combat between the two, with Israelite and Philistine soldiers as spectators, and the lower register shows David decapitating Goliath. The four medium-size plates depict ceremonial events: the anointing of David by Samuel (Fig. 2), the introduction of David to Saul (Fig. 3), Saul arming David (Fig. 4), and the marriage of David and Michal (Fig. 5), over which Saul presides. The four smallest plates depict David fighting a lion and a bear (Figs. 6, 7), a harp-playing David summoned by a messenger to be anointed (Fig. 8), and David in conversation with a soldier, whose identity is much disputed (Fig. 9).

The Second Cyprus Treasure, of which the David Plates form part, was discovered in 1902 in the ruins of the Byzantine town of Lambousa, where a few years earlier another hoard of sixth- and seventh-century Byzantine silver, known as the First Cyprus Treasure, had been found.5 In both cases the hoards were discovered casually by laborers from the nearby village of Karavas who were quarrying the ruins for building stone. As well as the David Plates, the Second Cyprus Treasure contained at least two silver plates decorated with simple cross monograms in niello inlay and a quantity of elaborate gold jewelry. …