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The “Church Wreck’s” Ciborium?

16 July 2015

 6th-century ciborium,Poreč, Croatia  photo via orthodoxartsjournal

When he excavated at Marzamemi fifty years ago, Gerhard Kapitän found elements of Byzantine church architecture. Along with columns, capitals, bases, and an ambo, he also described a ciborium. Having just completed a course at Stanford on medieval art and architecture, I wondered which elements of this structure he found. The ciborium was a roofed structure or canopy upheld by small columns (though it could also be a more temporary construction made of wood or the like), under which would be the altar; it protected important objects and people. 

What should we expect to find in an early 6th-century ciborium? Because it housed the altar, the ciborium had considerable liturgical significance as a place where sacred energy was gathered during ceremonies like the Eucharist. For this reason, in a cargo with a finely carved green marble ambo, we should expect a similarly ornate ciborium. According the Paul the Silentiary, the (now lost) ciborium of the Hagia Sophia was an “indescribable tower” held up by silver columns. If the Marzamemi ciborium was made of precious metal, perhaps it was salvaged in antiquity or later times.

Among our best surviving examples of a 6th-century ciborium is in Poreč, Croatia. The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč still preserves the marble columns of its early ciborium. The basilica was made from Proconnesian marble, much like the cargo of the Marzamemi II wreck. Its columns are polished and veined and support a 13th-century mosaic decorated canopy on top of Corinthian capitals. If the “Church Wreck” was carrying the parts of a complete basilica, we should have at least four matching small columns, and perhaps some paneling or other roof decoration for the structure (later ciboria have mosaics or carved marble on display above the altar). How does this compare to Kapitän’s ciborium?

In his 1969 article in Archaeology (22.2: 122-133) Kapitän identified a small, thin column on top of a pilaster as belonging to the ciborium. He appears to have only found the one. As Kapitän describes (128), “We…found a monolithic fragment of the transitional portion of a pillar topped by a column. This pillar is of a smaller size, so it cannot belong to the choir screen but probably belongs to one of the four supports of a ciborium roofing the altar. Of this element of the architecture, only a few pieces have been found.” Kapitän also notes, “A little marble column of a smaller diameter than those of the choir screens, but likewise topped by a cubical capital, may be one of the supports of the altar slab, if it is not a fragment of the candelabrum sacrum.” In other words, Kapitän associated the columns and capitals that were too small and perhaps too ornate to be part of the external structural with the more liturgically significant elements of ciborium and altar slab, used to hold up or house the altar. 

Since Kapitän only found one small ornamented column, it’s unclear whether a whole ciborium was among our shipwreck’s cargo (unlike the ambo, the ciborium did not survive well enough for Kapitan to reconstruct it). The columns of Poreč’s basilica are not the same shape as Kapitän’s “ciborium column”; they have smooth polished surfaces and Corinthian capitals, as opposed to the pilaster-column structure identified at Marzamemi. The evidence for Kapitän’s theory that the wreck was carrying the complete elements of one church may fall a bit short in terms of the ciborium—where are the other three columns? Surely they would match in an important, imperially contracted basilica. It remains unclear whether Kapitän’s column really did belong to a ciborium. But now I’m always looking for those other three pillar columns on the site.


Kapitän, G. 1969. “The Church Wreck of Marzamemi.” Archaeology 22.2: 122-133.