Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Marriage Belt with Bridal Couple, Christ, and Pagan Deities
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In early Byzantine society, some marriages involved the exchange of significant wealth in the form of dowries and bridal gifts. A Byzantine groom typically gave his fiancée jewelry in the form of rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and belts. However, it is unclear whether marriage rings and belts were part of the wedding ceremony or were exchanged informally as tokens of the promised marriage between the bride and groom.

    This marriage belt consists of twenty-one small medallions and two large medallions connected by gold links. The large medallions form the front of the belt and are joined by a clasp that is decorated with two suspended leaf-shaped charms. The small medallions feature depictions of Dionysian revelers or pagan gods, while the large medallions are decorated with images of the bride and groom flanking Christ, who presides over the dextrarum junctio, the joining of hands to commemorate the marriage union. Surrounding the couple are inscriptions invoking God to bring the couple harmony, grace, and health.

    The large medallions clearly express a Christian concept of marriage with Christ acting as the guardian over the couple’s union. However, this sentiment is obviously at odds with ideas present in the smaller medallions that draw from pagan iconography. The combination of Christian and pagan iconographies on this belt reveals that older traditions persisted in the culture of early Byzantine marriage, and it brings into question the functionality of this belt within Christian ceremony. While marriage belts were often donned informally, the tremendous value of this belt makes clear that it was intended for public display. If the belt was worn during a Christian ceremony in which the presence of pagan iconography would have been inappropriate, the smaller medallions could easily have been hidden under the folds of the bride’s wedding costume.

    It is highly likely that the inscription “health” on this belt references the couple’s desire for successful conception and childbirth. This argument is lent support by the fact that marriage belts were worn by women around the waist, drawing attention to the area of the body where pregnancy would become apparent. Furthermore, belts were often cited in the vita of the Christian saints as miraculous devices that aided women during hard labor. Such examples include Saint Theophano’s father placing a belt over his wife’s abdomen to facilitate Saint Theophano’s birth, and Saint Melania tying a belt around the hips of a woman struggling to expel a fetus that had died in utero.

  • Source: Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington D.C.
  • Rights: Reproduced with the permission of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Subject (See Also): Belts Jewelry Marriage
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Mediterranean
  • Century: 6- 7
  • Date: Late 6th or early 7th century
  • Related Work: See a similar late 6th century wedding belt at the Louvre: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/wedding-belt
  • Current Location: Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington D.C.
  • Original Location: Antioch or Constantinople
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Jewelry;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Gold
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //75.5
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Hilsdale, Cecily J. Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline. Cambridge University Press,2014: 72-73;
    Vikan, Gary. "Art and Marriage in Early Byzantium." Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol 44 (1990): 145-163;
    Walker, Alicia. "Marriage" and "Marriage Belt with Bridal Couple, Christ, and Pagan Deities." in Byzantine Women and Their World edited by Ioli Kalavrezou. Harvard University Art Museums, 2003. Pages 215-221, 229-230.