Often when we associate Byzantium with art, the image of religious frescoes and mosaics always comes to mind first. Indeed, some of the greatest examples of Byzantine art are those commissioned for churches and monasteries across the empire. But Byzantine art isn’t simply just about icons or breathtaking mosaics that adorn the interior domes and walls of churches. Interestingly, the exquisite nature of art and empire is also found on a small scale in the form of ivory carvings on items such as plagues, panels, covered boxes and caskets.
The allure of ivory and its esteem as a luxury good during the Byzantine era, I can only imagine set hearts racing as one of the most prized object that the wealthy just had to have. The great city of Constantinople was arguably the epicentre where these luxury goods first arrived via Africa (and to a lesser degree the Middle East and Asia). Once in the great city they were probably carved into intricate items by experienced local artists, many of them probably master craftsmen, apprentices or monks, before ending up in the homes of the rich or a place of worship, or even the imperial palace of the emperor.
Interestingly, throughout the Byzantine empires long history, the availability of the supply of ivory and its production fluctuated greatly. For instance, between the fourth and sixth century the production of ivory seemed to be constant, whereas during the seventh to ninth centuries it was in short supply. But by the tenth to the eleventh century it was once again very popular and quite evident in the examples of artwork that exists today in collection of museums around the world. From the thirteenth century onwards, the supply and production of ivory would wane with the fortunes of the empire.
This article, like my earlier two-part series on Byzantine mosaics, will attempt to look at some of the most interesting Byzantine ivories that have survived. Without further ado, please enjoy part one (of two) of this series.
Harbaville Triptych, 10th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).
The Harbaville Triptych is without a doubt one of the most richly detailed Byzantine ivories to come from a workshop in Constantinople. Just look at the detail of Christ’s throne as an example. The painstaking precision and detail as something as elaborate as that is arguably still today almost impossible to comprehend. It was made in the tenth century, maybe even the eleventh century, and has been associated with what art historians call the Romanos group of ivories. Interestingly, the base relief figures depict Christ, John the Baptist, the Virgin and other saints and martyrs. Of interest too, 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. It is currently located in the Louvre in Paris for those interested in exquisite art.
Ivory Plaque Fragment with Christ Crowning Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, 10th century, Constantinople (Istanbul).
Under a ceremonial canopy, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos is depicted being proclaimed emperor by Christ, who is standing on a footstool that elevates him above the emperor. This image would become over the years one of the best known images of Byzantium. (Interestingly, the detail of this ivory was copied by the Norman mosaic in Sicily, where Roger II receives his crown from Christ.) The inscription on the ivory spells out in clear detail Constantine VII’s full titles and his legitimate claim to the throne. For much of his life, his destiny was in the hands of others, that was of course until he reached the age of forty, breaking the shackles of those around him, becoming sole emperor until his death in 959. His rule was generally steady, but he is best remembered for devoting a lot of his spare time to reading and study. He wrote many books on various topics, which included a manual.
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.
Romanos Ivory, probably second 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 here 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.
Troyes casket with emperors and hunters, 10th century, Catherdral of Troyes, France.
What you will quickly note about the wonderful Byzantine ivory carvings illustrated here in this article is that by far the majority of them appear natural and creamy in colour. Therefore, it would safe to assume the Byzantines must have preferred the aesthetics of ivory’s natural beauty, right? But you may actually be surprised to learn that Byzantine craftsmen and artists were known to frequently paint ivories in bright shades of blue, green, gold and red like the amazing Troyes casket (above). The reason why a good number of surviving ivory carvings are not coloured anymore is because the painted surface of ivories over time just simply wore off or was cleaned away.
The surprising reddish purple tinged Troyes casket resides today in the Cathedral of Troyes, in France. It is believed that it was brought from Constantinople to Troyes, by bishop Jean Langlois, after the great city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
Wonderful sculpted scenes of emperors and hunters are featured on all sides of the casket. The lid features two emperors carrying spears on decorated horses on either side of a walled city. The people in the city appear to sing the praises of the emperors with arms outreached. Interestingly, the emperor on the right appears to be offered a crown. (Art historians often wonder whether the lid is in fact really only showing one emperor, repeated for decorative purposes.) On the rear panel a scene depicts a hunter using a lance attacking a wild boar with the aid of hunting dogs. While the front panel (as seen above) shows a lion hunt with two riders perfectly positioned between a lion. The two ends of the casket, which often get overlooked, depict a long-necked bird, which seems to resemble a phoenix, as a symbol of rebirth.
Despite some obvious cracks in the lid and end panels, the Troyes casket is incredible. It is made entirely from sculpted ivory panels that were once originally held together by ivory pegs. Today the casket is held together by small pieces of metal, but that doesn’t seem to diminish its beauty.
For some further insight into the context and history of coloured Byzantine ivories it is worthwhile reading The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories by Prof. Carolyn L. Connor.
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.
Procession of Relics Ivory Relief, mid 5th century, Constantinople.
This gorgeous ivory relief was probably made in one of the finest workshops in Constantinople during the middle of the fifth century CE. It is in my opinion a wonderful example of early Christian ivory art. It records the event of the arrival of relics to presumably the great city of Constantinople.
Beneath the towering Great Palace, an empress (believed to be Pulcheria) is shown receiving the relics of a Christian martyr, probably St. Stephen the Protomartyr. The horse drawn carriage shows two bishops delivering their precious cargo to the almost complete church on the far right of the ivory relief. The church in question is believed to be St. Mary Chalkoprateia, which was built during the reign of Theodosius II.
It is important to note here that the reliability of the above description has been challenge in recent decades. For instance, some academics now believe this ivory is actually most likely to be of the late eighth or ninth century. The biggest indication that this ivory is from a later date is related to the depiction of the Chalke Gate seen in the top left hand corner of the ivory. It has been argued that the icon of the Chalke Gate is completely apocryphal – it did not exist until Irene’s reign in the eighth century.