Diptych of Consul Areobindus
Constantinople, 506 AD
H 34 cm, D 11.9 cm
Dating from late antiquity, "consular diptychs" originated in a Roman custom of gratitude. Individuals elected to the highest civil offices would thank high ranking citizens who had supported their candidacy by sending them a diptych of two ivory writing tablets hinged together and lavishly carved. On a recess carved into the back of these tablets was a thin coating of wax where a message could be inscribed.
In 384 AD, the use of this type of diptych was restricted to those who had achieved the office of consul, the highest honor of a civil service career. That office was conferred only once a year. Consisting of two panels that featured the same décor, the diptychs were used until the end of the consulate under Justinian in 543 AD. Since they usually feature the name or monogram of the consul (as does the Louvre piece), the year can a consul achieved office precisely dated the monuments. Among the diptychs that have been preserved, the oldest were produced in fifth century Rome, while sixth century models were carved in Constantinople. This probably due to the fact that, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, imperial power and its institutions was transferred to Constantinople.
The Louvre diptych was produced in 506 AD on the occasion of the consulate of Areobindus. The grandson of consuls, Areobindus was a hero of the war against the Persians and had married Princess Anicia Juliana, daughter of Olybrius, one of the last western Roman emperors. When he died in 512 AD, Areobindus was in competition with Anastasius to accede to the imperial throne. An exceptionally high number of diptychs and panels in his name remain: two complete diptychs and five individual panels. These are also the oldest of the Constantinople series.
The Areobindus panels correspond to three iconographic types. The first depicts the consul presiding over circus games. The second, which includes the Louvre diptych, features a bust of the Consul within a medallion. The third features two horns of plenty crossed over a basket spilling over with fruit and is represented by a single panel in the Lucca Cathedral.
Most of the other diptychs dating from the sixth century are of the first two iconographic types, which have the most symbols of the consular office. Those diptychs that represent the consul always portray him—as is the case here—wearing the trabea picta. In one hand he holds the two essential signs of his office, the scepter and the mappa, a piece of cloth consuls waved to signal the beginning of the circus games – by the sixth century, the last vestige of the consulate's otherwise long lost political power. On the Louvre diptych, the medallion featuring the consul's bust sits in the center of a large lozenge formed by branches with stylized leaves that evoke, in particular, the same ornaments used in early sixth century sculpture in Constantinople. Above and below the medallion, the consul's monogram, in Greek lettering, is carved in high relief.
Consular diptychs were clearly not aimed primarily at acquainting those they were offered to with the specific features of a consul, but rather to propagate an idealized and solemn image of the new honorific office the consul had acceded to through imperial grace. Any attempt at portraiture was superseded by expressive stylizations that served to accentuate the hieratic quality of the central figure, heavily garbed in the conventional symbols of his office, his round, impassive smooth and stereotypical face enlivened with large eyes. Like other official portraits produced in Constantinople during this era, the diptych of Areobindus provides a perfect early sixth-century example of the application or the neo-Platonic aesthetic inherited from the philosopher Plotinus’s meditations: that the material realty of an individual's features be transcended in order to better express the symbolic essence of the honorific office that distinguished him.