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Cultic and Liturgical Devices



In many churches, the sacred relics were the focus of the liturgical rites and cultic processions. The relics were bones, bits of clothing, or fragments of objects that had belonged to a saint, which were kept in special boxes called reliquaries. In Khirbet Beth Sila, north of Jerusalem, a small reliquary was found containing a long strand of hair. The reliquaries were placed beneath the main altar, within a depression in the floor, and sometimes also kept in the rooms alongside the apse or in the side apses, called for this reason martyria.

The reliquaries were made of marble or stone and often had two or more compartments for storing relics of different types. Occasionally, they were fitted with metal locks. The lid usually had a hole into which oil could be poured over the relics to anoint them.
The cult of the sacred relics was based on the belief that the relics passed their sanctity onto whatever they came into contact with. Thus it was also possible to insert small objects into the box by means of a rod, causing them to “absorb” the blessings of the sacred relics through contact with them. Another means of obtaining the blessing was to pour oil onto the relics through the hole in the lid and to empty it out into small containers, which the faithful brought with them especially for this purpose. Some of the reliquaries have an additional hole in one of the sides, to make it easier to remove the sanctified oil. These holes were sometimes equipped with metal spouts.

Marble reliquary in the shape of a small sarcophagus
inside of it was discovered a strand of hair
Church of St. Theodoros at Khirbet Beit Sila, 6th century
Staff Archaeological Officer in the Civil Administration of
Judea and Samaria, K030581
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay


Liturgical Vessels

The most important part of the Christian liturgy was the Eucharist, in which the participants partook of the holy bread and wine – symbols of the body and blood of Jesus serving as a reminder of his sacrifice. The liturgical vessels that were set upon the altar during the ceremony included ewers of wine and water, a strainer, chalices, and patens (plates) for the holy bread.


Bread Stamps

Bread has always had symbolic meaning: it has been offered to gods, served to important guests, and presented as a token of peace. The custom of stamping bread before it is baked is attested even before the advent of Christianity, and over time, it became customary to stamp the holy bread used for the Eucharist, as well. Today, thin wafers are used in this ceremony, and it may be assumed that in the churches of the Byzantine period, unleavened bread served the purpose.

The large bread stamps were made of pottery or stone and were suitable for stamping entire loaves of bread. The incised patterns along the surface of the stamp made it easier to break the bread into small pieces. The smaller round stamps were apparently used for eulogia (blessing) cakes, which were distributed to pilgrims. The most common type was the small stone stamp, divided into four fields by a cross and bearing the letters IC, XC, A and W, abbreviations and symbols of the names of Jesus.

Bread stamp divided into four parts by a cross
Tiberias, Early Muslim period (?)
Israel Antiquities Authority, 99-3955
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay

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Based on the travelogues of pilgrims, as well as archaeological evidence, it seems that incense played a prominent role in early Christian liturgy. The censers were suspended from chains within the church and swung during the ceremonies, which fanned the coals that burned inside them and caused the scent of the incense to permeate the hall. Most of the censers were made of cast bronze in the shape of a bowl, around the rim of which were three hooks, loops, or holes to attach the censer to a chain. The majority of the censers also had bases or legs and could thus also be left free-standing. Censers with high, wide bases, which were clearly not meant to be carried, were equipped with perforated lids.

"After these three psalms and prayers they take censers into the cave of the Anastasis, so that the whole Anastasis basilica is filled with the smell." From the description of Egeria, a pilgrim from 4th century.

Bronze censers from different sites in the Holy Land
Jerusalem, Beth Shean, Shoham, and Yatir
Byzantine period
Israel Antiquities Authority, I.4446, I.9645, M.862,
40-1235, 52-111, 56-2, 78-1294, 97-4048
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay

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In the Days of Jesus |In the Early Church |Pilgrimage |Images & Symbols |Monasticism in the Holy Land

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