This oil flask, or ampulla, dates to the sixth century C.E. The Greek inscription specifies that it once contained “oil of the wood of life” acquired at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Such oil, which was supposedly poured over the relic of the true cross, was bottled to be sold to visiting pilgrims as a spiritually potent souvenir, allowing pilgrims to share in the sacred power of the holy site and the relic.
Both sides feature well-preserved relief decoration. One side shows the crucifixion, with Christ stylized as a bust, flanked by the two crucified thieves (Matthew 27:38; Luke 23:33). At the base of the cross, which replaces Christ’s body, are the four rivers of paradise and two kneeling soldiers (or pilgrims). The other side has the women at the tomb (Mark 16:1-8), with the two Marys on the left and a seated angel on the right. Instead of the rock tomb of the gospel accounts, we see the Holy Sepulchre’s shrine of the tomb (Edicule) as it must have looked before its destruction by the Persians during the sacking of Jerusalem in 614. The open grill reveals an altar and a lamp. Above is the tambour supporting the cupola of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; it features a row of grilled windows and decorative fillings between them. The inscription reads, “The Lord is risen.” Both scenes often appear together in pilgrimage art, providing a depiction of the sites of Golgotha and the tomb, which are next to each other in the church.
Made of lead and measuring about 2 inches in diameter, this pilgrim souvenir has been crushed flat, and the neck is missing. It is on view in the Byzantine galleries of Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C.
1. Byzantine coin
2. Oil flask
3. Seal impression
4. Christian amulet
5. Game piece
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