501 Treasures of Byzantium: No.54-57 ‘Magnificent Ivories’.

No.54 Harbaville Triptych, 10th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).

This is one of the most richly detailed ivories to come from a workshop in Constantinople. Just look at the detail of Christ’s throne as an example. It was made in the 10 th century, maybe even the 11 th century, and has been associated with the Romanos group of ivories.

The base relief figures depict Christ, John the Baptist, the Virgin and other saints and martyrs. Of interest, is the warrior saints depicted in the wings (inside doors), which might suggest that it was commissioned for a patron who was a member of the Byzantine army?

The Harbaville Triptych measures 11 inches x 9 inches (28 x 24cm) when fully opened. Currently located in the Louvre in Paris.

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No.55 Barberini Diptych, 6th century, probably from Constantinople (Istanbul). Currently located in the Louvre, Paris.

The triumphant Byzantine emperor on a rearing horse has often been identified as Justinian, or even possibly Anastasius or Zeno. Although some historians identify this ivory with Anastasius (because of the combination of pagan and Christian motifs), it is now generally agreed to be Justinian.

Putting that debate aside, this wonderful five-part ivory has almost every important image that is associated with imperial power. For example, we can see Nika, the goddess of victory, in the top corner, extending a crown to the emperor. Gaia, goddess of the earth, is holding the emperors foot possibly as a gesture of domination. Behind the emperor’s lance and in the bottom panel are cowering barbarians who submit and offer tribute to the triumphant emperor. Finally, a Roman consul on the left holds and offers a gift to the emperor (which was presumably matched by a second consul figure on the empty right panel which is now lost).

Interestingly, with our eyes drawn to the central panel, it might be tempting to ignore the figure of Christ above the emperor. He is beardless and youthful a lot like the pagan god Apollo.

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No.56: Romanos Ivory, probably 2nd half of the 11th century, Cabinet des medailles, Paris.

The Romanos Ivory is believed to be commemorating the coronation of Romanos II in 945 CE. The ivory was also probably created to acknowledge the imperial marriage between Romanos and Eudokia (Bertha, daughter of Hugo of Provence, king of Italy), a union of dynastic purpose, something that was occasionally done for the sake of union. Interestingly, Romanos was married off at about six years of age, but his portrait shows him older (though still youthful in appearance).

Romanos would later remarry, upon the death of Eudokia, but would come to be dominated by his new wife, Theophano. Romanos would die of natural cause at the age of only twenty-five. His only worthwhile legacy it seems was the reconquest of Crete in 961.

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No. 57: Ivory relief of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, probably from Constantinople, 10th century, Bode Museum, Berlin.

According to St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, forty soldiers who openly confessed to be Christians were martyred during the reign of Emperor Licinius in the Roman east during the early fourth century. They were forced to strip naked and stand upon a frozen pond near Sebaste, in the hope that they would renounce their allegiance to Christianity before freezing to death. But like all typical martyr stories, the soldiers refused to disavow Christ and froze to death. The next day, all of those that did not die were burned and their ashes scattered into the river.

Their veneration would soon after become widespread all over the east and in time across the whole empire. It also doesn’t come as a surprise that early Christian artists would eventually become enthralled by the story of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. In art, especially in this ivory relief (above) they are typically shown huddled in despair standing on a frozen body of water.

Today, their feast is still celebrated in both the Orthodox and Catholic Church.

Photo credits: All images used are freely available in the public domain.