Leaf from a Diptych with Women at the Tomb
Rome, about 400
Ivory, 30.7 x 13.4 cm
Museo delle Arti Decorative/Castello Sforzesco, Milan
This ivory plaque is in excellent condition except for a long crack and several drill holes along its right side. On it is represented the Holy Sepulcher, whose ornamented roof line divides the relief into two equal parts. In the upper half, beneath the symbols for Matthew (angel) and Luke (calf), are two Roman guards struck down with fear at the opening of the tomb (Matt. 28:4). In the lower half, before the tomb's open doors (decorated with the Raising of Lazarus and Christ addressing Zacchaeus), is a scene generally interpreted as the angel announcing to Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, that Christ had risen (Matt. 28:1-6).
It has been interpreted this composition as representing a conflation of the scene of announcement with the subsequent episode of Christ appearing to the two Marys, the so-called Chairete (Matt. 28:9-10), since in conformity with the later text passage, the women are shown bowing in adoration, grasping the feet of the seated figure. A seventh-century icon of the Chairete on Mt. Sinai was discovered in which the gestures and attitudes of the two women precisely match those in the Milan ivory. He suggests that the seated figure, whose pose and position before the tomb conform to the earlier passage, has been reinterpreted as Christ through the addition of a halo and a scroll in his left hand. According to this interpretation, the Milan ivory is an early witness to a narrative pictorial tradition whose other members include, in addition to the Sinai icon, the Rabbula Gospels.
As the presence of just two evangelist symbols would suggest, this plaque probably formed half of a diptych. And, like other such Early Christian diptychs, it was probably used in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy—on its reverse would be inscribed the names of the living and the dead for whom prayers were said during the service. Resurrection iconography would, of course, be fully appropriate to such a function. This is one of the finest plaques to have survived from the Early Christian period. Stylistically, it belongs to an impressive group of pagan and Christian ivories generally thought to reflect a revival of Hellenistic excellence and taste fostered by wealthy Roman families in the late fourth century. Among its closest relatives are the Nicomachi-Symmachi and Probianus diptychs, which share its ornamental motifs, and the Munich Ascension plaque, which is both stylistically and iconographically related.