The diminutive of amphora [properly, amp(h)orula, from amphi, or both, and phero or porto, bear], a small globular flask with two handles for carrying, another name for cruets. The term is used of those clay or glass vessels found at tombs in the catacombs. It is probable that these vessels were used to preserve portions of the oil or perfume used to anoint the bodies of the dead. Another class of this type of vessel was used to preserve oil for the lamps burning at the shrines of martyrs, a custom generally observed in the Middle Ages. Some image or symbol usually identified the saint from whose tomb the ampullae were taken. Several of those containing oil from the tombs of famous Roman martyrs are still preserved at the Cathedral of Monza. These were the gift of Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Theodolinda. A greater number of ampullae of this type were brought to Europe by pilgrims from the tomb of St. Mennas in Egypt. A third class of ampullae made of clay, metal, or glass was used to preserve the oils consecrated by the bishop (Optatus of Milevis, Contra Parmenianum Donatistam 2.19, "Ampulla Chrismatis").
Of the ampullae found in the catacombs, many contained a dark-red sediment that was thought to be blood, thus marking the tomb of a martyr. Negative results obtained by chemical analysis have rendered this theory untenable. The sediment found in a test group of so-called blood vases revealed the presence of elements vastly disproportionate to those that might be found in blood. While it is not improbable that a few of the "ampullae sanguinis" did contain blood, they cannot be considered one of the marks of a martyr's tomb, since a number of such ampullae were found at the tombs of children under seven, and many date from the latter half of the fourth century, long after the era of persecution. Moreover, ampullae have been found in Jewish catacombs, e.g., on the Via Labicana, fastened to the tombs in the same way as in the Christian cemeteries.
Bibliography: f. oppenheimer, The Legend of the Ste. Ampoule (London 1953). c. bakirtzis, "Byzantine Ampullae from Thessaloniki," in The Blessings of Pilgrimage, ed. r. ousterhout (Urbana, IL 1990) 140–149. m. ducan-flowers, "A Pilgrim's Ampulla from the Shrine of St. John the Evangelist at Ephesus," in The Blessings of Pilgrimage, ed. r. ousterhout (Urbana, IL 1990) 125–139.
[m. a. beckmann/eds.]