The Reliquary Casket of St. Tryphon, Kotor
The Reliquary Casket of St. Tryphon, Kotor

By Valentina Živković | Institute for Balkan Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts


St. Tryphon, the 3rd-century young martyr from Phrygian Campsada, is the patron saint of Kotor (modern day Montenegro). The cult of St. Tryphon appeared in Kotor around 809, when Andrea Saracenis, a citizen from Kotor, bought his relics and built the first church in honor of the saint. The relic of the head of the saint is kept in the “Glorious Head’’ reliquary made in stages between the 13th and 17th centuries. A bone from the body of St. Tryphon is kept in the reliquary made in the shape of a casket with a slightly concave roof. Executed in wood and covered in silver, the reliquary was completed sometime between 1539 and 1551. Both reliquaries are kept in the St. Tryphon Cathedral Treasury and displayed on the altar of the Cathedral and in the procession through the streets of Kotor during St. Tryphon’s Day, each year on February 3. 

St. Tryphon’s Reliquary Casket is probably the work of local goldsmiths, who executed numerous reliquaries predominantly in the shape of arms and legs during the late medieval and early modern periods. The silver sheet that covers the chest displays the reliefs of six scenes of the torture and death of St. Tryphon. On the large front sides there are two narrative scenes on rectangular panels, and only one on the narrower, lateral sides. There is a sequence of the following narrative scenes separated by pilasters: St. Tryphon drawn and quartered by horses, St. Tryphon’s flagellation, St. Tryphon tied to a column, the torture of St. Tryphon by fire, the stoning of St. Tryphon, and the death (by beheading) of St. Tryphon. The figure of St. Tryphon with the palm branch and model of the town of Kotor in his hands is represented twice on the longer sides of the casket roof. The patron saint of the town of Kotor is shown frontally, dressed in a toga and a cloak, flanked by two dragons and cherubims.  The triangular fields that flank the two panels with the representation of St. Tryphon show medallions with symbols of the Evangelists in palm branches. Pelicans surrounded by zoomorphic and vegetable motifs of dolphins and acanthus leaves can be found on the narrow sides of the casket. All the narrative scenes from the martyrdom cycles of the St. Tryphon are typified by a combining of traditional hieratic late medieval style with the perspectival approach of the early Renaissance.


There are no primary sources related to the origin of Kotor’s reliquary casket. The specific iconography can reveal aspects about the historical and religious context in which it was created. St. Tryphon on the casket roof is shown holding a model of a town with a flag of the Lion of St. Mark, and so it is possible to propose a date after 1420 when Kotor became part of the Venetian Republic (until 1797). The year 1551 was proposed as the terminus ante quem, considering that the reliquary is mentioned in the poem Descriptio sinus et urbis Ascriviensis by the poet Giovanni Bona de Boliris, which dates between 1539 and 1551. Kotor cathedral was represented with a dome that existed until the 1563 earthquake when it collapsed and was never rebuilt. The representation of the ramparts with curved towers on the south and north sides that reflect the actual fortifications of Kotor offer the possibility of a more precise dating of the reliquary casket after the Venetian victory (under the command of the provveditore Gian Matteo Bembo) over the kapudan pacha Hayreddin Barbarossa (1475–1546) during the Ottoman siege of Kotor in 1539. 

The iconography of the narrative scenes of the torture and death of St. Tryphon additionally gives credence to the presumption on the dating of the reliquary casket in the years immediately following Barbarossa’s attack of Kotor. Namely, the Turks as contemporary enemies and participants of historical events are interpolated as the torturers of St. Tryphon. The torturers are represented as bearded and turbaned Turks with sabres around their waists. In the final scene of the death of the young martyr, the executioner, dressed in military attire, is showing the severed head of St. Tryphon to the prefect Aquilinus seated upon a throne. With some caution (which is necessary when identifying the portrait features of the participants in a hagiographic narrative scene), I would like to point out the manner in which the prefect is represented. He is depicted as a resolute man wearing a turban, with a thick beard and long whiskers, a strong and slightly hooked nose, and with bushy eyebrows joined together in a frown. Similarities of the features of the prefect Aquilinus on the Kotor reliquary casket can be observed by comparing them to the portraits of Hayreddin Barbarossa, such as that found in the 1535 engraving by Agostino dei Musi (called Veneziano). 

The narrative of the holy patron saint of the town receiving a celestial award for his suffering represents a victory of Christian Kotor and it had occurred under the spiritual and political power of the Venetian flag of Saint Mark. In the same context of emphasizing Venetian merit, the choice of the form of the reliquary can also be considered. It was made to resemble, at least for the basic form of the reliquary with narrative scenes, the Tomb-Shrine of St. Simeon displayed in the church of St. Simeon in Zadar and commissioned by Queen Elizabeth Kotromanić (ca.1339–87) 

The hagiographical works undoubtedly served as a literary template for the iconography of the scenes of the torture and death of St. Tryphon on the reliquary casket. The partially preserved 12th century hagiography Suffering of Saint Tryphon and Saint Blaise (Library of the Archaeological Museum in Split) renders the description of the torture of St. Tryphon by fire, horses, flagellation, stoning, and finally beheading - scenes that were also presented on the 16th century reliquary casket. Particular attention should be paid to the iconographic representation of death, that is, when St. Tryphon recepit gladium, et consumauit martirium. The 12th century hagiography testifies that St. Tryphon uttered the following before he died: Ihesu Xpiste, domine, suscipe spiritum meum. That moment is represented on the reliquary casket in the form of an angel who takes the soul of St. Tryphon to heaven. Another hagiographic text was written at the time of the reliquary casket - Offitium Sancti Triphonis Martyris, Civitatis Catharensis Patroni, omnia eius viatae miracula ac Martyrii certamina contiens (printed in Venice in 1561), by Bishop Luca Bisanti who headed the Kotor bishopry from 1532 to 1565, and thus witnessed the Turkish siege in 1539.

Further Reading 

Capriotti, Giuseppe, and Borja Franco Llopis, eds. Changing the Enemy, Visualizing the Other. Contacts between Muslims and Christians in the Early Modern Mediterranean Art. Special issue, Il Capitale culturale: Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage 6 (2017).

This volume examines representations of Turks in Christian art, especially the phenomenon of interpolation of the Muslims in the scenes of the Passion of Christ and in the scenes of the martyrdom of the saints.

Fortini Brown, Patricia. “Becoming a Man of Empire: The Construction of Patrician Identity in a Republic of Equals.” In Architecture, Art and Identity in Venice and Its Territories, 1450–1750: Essays in Honour of Deborah Howard, edited by Nebahat Avcioglu and Emma Jones, 231–249. Burlington: Ashgate, 2013.

This chapter examines the role of the captain Gian Matteo Bembo in Kotor.

Novak, Viktor. “Notae paleographicae, chronologicae et historicae I-VI.” Vjesnik Hrvatskoga arheolokoga društva 15, no. 1 (1928): 159–222.

This study focuses on the transcription and analysis of the partially preserved 12th-century hagiography Suffering of Saint Tryphon and Saint Blaise.

Živković, Valentina. “Saint Tryphon’s Reliquary Casket in Kotor: A Contribution to the Study of the Iconography.” Zograf 43 (2019): 185–196.

This study examines the iconography and context in which the reliquary casket was created.

Živković, Valentina. “Osanna da Cattaro and Franceschina da Zara: Living Saints as Spiritual Protectors during the Ottoman Siege of Kotor.” Initial: A Review of Medieval Studies 6 (2018): 123–136.

This study examines the spiritual protection of Kotor during the Ottoman siege in 1539.


Valentina Živković, "The Reliquary Casket of St. Tryphon, Kotor," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,