The Barberini Ivory

Given to Cardinal Barberini by Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc in the early seventeenth century, the Barberini Ivory must already have been in Provence by the seventh century: on the back is a list of Barbarian kings and officials of the region. This is the only near-complete leaf of an imperial diptych to have come down to us. Its central section portrays the Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or, more likely, Justinian (527-565) in triumph, and its upper part, the glorification of Christ. 


The Barberini Ivory: a near-complete imperial diptych
This is the only near-complete leaf of an imperial diptych to have come down to us. The leaves were composed of five separate elements. Here only the right-hand plaque is missing: like the others it was held in place around the central plaque by a tongue and groove system that made possible the considerable width of the leaf as a whole.
The back of the leaf is inscribed with the names of officials of the seventh-century kingdom of Austrasia. Kept in Provence at this time, it was rediscovered in the home of the scholar of Aix-en-Provence, Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc, in the seventeenth century. The diptych owes its name to Cardinal Barberini, to whom Peiresc gave it as a gift.


View of a triumph
The center of the diptych is occupied by a carving in high relief of the triumph of a mounted emperor. To his right, but now lost, an allegory of Victory, set on a globe engraved with a cross, held out a crown to him. A spear in the horseman's right hand is planted in the ground to hold back a bearded figure - a Persian or Scythian, it would seem, judging by the clothing and cap. Sitting beneath the horse's hoofs, a woman symbolizing the Earth holds the emperor's right foot in a gesture of submission. In the upper section, a bust of Christ administering a blessing is flanked by Winged Victories. On the left, a soldier is preparing to give the horseman a statuette of Victory bearing a laurel wreath. At the bottom, the vanquished have come to pay tribute to their conqueror. The overall composition is dominated by the triumphal scene and the omnipotence of the Byzantine emperor.


Justinian, Constantine, or Anastasius?
Despite a marked resemblance to portraits of Constantine (324-340), the emperor shown here would seem to be Justinian (527-565), given the period indicated by the style of the piece. Some commentators have opted for Anastasius (491-518), second husband of the empress Ariadne (d. 515). The two ivory figures of empresses - both identified as Ariadne - in the Vienna Museum and the Bargello (National Museum of Sculpture) in Florence have undeniable affinities with the central section of the Barberini Ivory, especially in that they are virtually sculpted in the round. However, the stylistic differences do not allow for any definite correlation, and the leaf in the Louvre seems a little later. Such factors as analogies with the reliefs on the episcopal throne in Ravenna, and the association of Christ administering a blessing with a Byzantine emperor - attested on the Consul Justin diptych, with its medallions of Justinian, Christ, and the empress Theodora, side by side - mean the Barberini Ivory can be attributed to the Constantinople workshops of the second quarter of the sixth century. This would thus seem to be a triumphal portrait of Justinian who, in 532, signed a "peace treaty" with the Persians.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016