Carved ivory leaf from a diptych
Rome, 402 AD
Ivory; H. 301.00mm, W. 114.00mm
This splendid leaf is one of the last great commissions of pagan art in Rome before the triumph of Christianity. The scroll at the top bears a monogram probably reading 'SYMMACHORUM', a reference to one of the leading families in Rome. The Symmachi family probably commissioned this ivory panel to commemorate Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (about 340-402), the greatest orator of his day, a prominent pagan and opponent of Christianity. The ivory vividly depicts three different events. At the centre-right a mature bearded man in a senatorial toga sits beneath a gabled roof supported on columns. This ornate structure is borne on a wheeled carriage drawn by four elephants with their riders, holding prods and elephant-rattles. The figure is possibly intended to represent Q. Aurelius Symmachus himself, who served in the highest public offices of pro-consul and consul. The next scene shows his death, symbolized by a draped funeral pyre surmounted by a quadriga (four-horsed chariot). Two eagles, representing the soul, fly upwards from the pyre. On the upper section the famous man is carried into heaven by winged figures who personify the winds; they pass an arc with signs of the zodiac and are watched by Helios, the sun god. At the summit five ancestors welcome his arrival and apotheosis (elevation to divine status).