The glass paten that was discovered by archaeologists of the Forvm MMX project during the 2014 season of fieldwork at the Iberian-Roman city of Cástulo (Linares, Jaén), is one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of Christian art known from the Iberian peninsula. The piece was found inside one of the rooms of a building used for worship that was built in the second half of the fourth century CE, and abandoned about a century later.
The paten, with a diameter of 22 cm and a height of about 4 cm, is exceptionally well preserved for its age and material (81% of it was recovered by the excavators). It was made of a greenish glass, decorated by the artist using the technique of incision, or cutting into the surface. The composition shows three figures with haloes: Christ in majesty at the center, flanked by two apostles, probably Sts. Peter and Paul. The scene is set in the celestial orb, bordered by two palms, which, in Christian iconography represent immortality, the afterlife, or heaven.
The figure of Christ, beardless and with curly hair in the Alexandrian style, is shown with typical attributes: a cross with gems in one hand (symbol of the resurrection), and the holy scriptures in the other hand. Beside him is the Chi-Rho symbol (an anagram for “Christ”) with the Greek letters alpha and omega, an element which emphasizes his reign and divinity. The figures at the sides carry in their hands a rotulus legis, or “scroll of the law.”
The function of the dish was likely liturgical. The paten, together with a chalice, was one of the essential components used in the celebration of the Christian ceremonial banquet, the Eucharist. The paten received the bread that had been blessed as the body of Christ so that it could be distributed to the faithful. Its presence and importance in the ritual is reported to us by several ancient sources, such as the Liber Pontificalis (a collection of biographies of early Popes). In these sources, the use of the paten is described.
Few similar examples have been found by archaeological excavations in the Iberia peninisula. With respect to close parallels of contemporary date, we can cite the discovery of various hemispherical bowls with a similar iconography coming from excavations at L’Almoina (Valencia) and the ancient city of Complutum (modern Alcalá de Henares).
Our research on this piece shows that, according to a stylistic and technical analysis, it probably originated in one of the more important glass workshops in or around the city of Rome. This part of the empire, in the fourth century CE, was the focal point of artistic production, competing with the production of similar objects in workshops along the Rhine.