Conservation of an early Christian/Visigoth terracotta relief plaque
By Dylan Cox, Sculpture Conservator
In terms of the history and use of this type of terracotta relief, they appear mostly to have been found in southern Spain (the region of Andalucia specifically) and some in North Africa. Chronologically they date from the IV to the VIII centuries AD, originating probably in North Africa during Roman times.
Numerous examples exist in various collections in Spain with several examples identical to the V&A's bearing the inscription BRACARI VIVAS CUM TUIS (there are several examples in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional of Madrid, Spain and one at the British Museum).
Some researchers have translated this inscription to mean "Bracario, may you live with your kind" or in a more interpretative way "Bracario is buried here with his next of kin". It is also suggested by some that Bracarius might be referring to a bishop who lived in Andalucia in the year 381 AD. Bracarius is also a Roman name but originally Celtic, associated with professions such as dress making and cobblers.
The function of these plaques is not entirely clear as none appear to have been found in their original archaeological context. However, they are thought to be tomb markers, plaques built into walls as architectural embellishments or even ex-votos. Detailed observations made during the conservation process of this object seem to suggest that some of these objects may have been painted in some way, possibly white-washed, suggesting that they may indeed have been architectural embellishments, perhaps embedded in a wall and then white-washed.
This object will be shown in the "Rome and beyond" display case, which attempts to convey continuity and change in the years 300-1000 AD and how Europe took much of its shape, culture and political structures directly from the Roman Empire, looking particularly at the on-going influence of Constantinople on Christian artists.
Castelo Ruano, R., 'Placas decoradas paleocristianas y visigodas de la collection Alhonoz (Ecija, Sevilla)', Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie II, Historia Antigua t.9 (1996), pp. 467-536.
De Palol, P., 'Placas en ceramica, decoradas, Paleocristianas y Visigodas, In: Scritti di storia dell'arte in onore di Mario Salmi, Rome (1961-63), pp. 131-153.
I am grateful to Charlotte Hubbard for giving me the opportunity to work on the object, Simon Carter for his information and interest and Lisa Wagner for her encouragement and support.