The central panel of this triptych depicts the Deesis, with the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist interceding with Christ Enthroned on behalf of humanity. Beneath this, and on the two side panels, the apostles, holy martyrs, holy bishops and holy soldiers join in the entreaty. This masterpiece of Byzantine classicism is the most elegant of the ivories from the imperial workshop known as "Romanus". It is an important example of the revival of the arts at Byzantium under the Macedonian emperors.
A masterpiece of Byzantine art
Typical of the revival of Byzantine art under the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057), this triptych combines oriental influences, accents of classical antiquity, and the Christian tradition. The central scene is the Deesis, with the Virgin and St. John the Baptist inteceding before Christ Enthroned on behalf of humanity. On the scene beneath and on the two side panels is a frieze of apostles, holy martyrs, holy bishops, and holy soldiers joining them in prayer. The reverse of the central panel is decorated with a Latin cross, its center and tips adorned with rosettes. A starry background covers the top of the panel, while beneath the horizontal crosspiece a stylized garden scene unfolds, filled with various animals (lions, rabbits, birds). The work offers an image of the Garden of Eden, with the two cypresses symbolizing the Trees of Good and Evil, and the cross the Source of Life. Figures of pairs of saints with books or crosses and separated by a pair of medallions containing busts of the saints punctuate the outer panels.
The "Romanus" group
The Harbaville Triptych belongs to a group of ivories from the imperial workshop known as "Romanus" and takes its name from a plaque in the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale showing Christ crowning Emperor Romanus II (938-963) and Empress Bertha-Eudoxia (945-49) (see Christ Crowns Romanos and Eudokia). The face of Christ in the Harbaville Triptych bears a striking resemblance to that of Christ in the "Romanus" ivory. The technical brilliance, the rendering of the drapery, and the elegant attitudes of the figures attest to the similarities between the two pieces. Thus the date of this triptych is dependent upon the date of the "Romanos" ivory. The latter and the group of which it forms part can be dated to the imperial court of Constantinople in the middle or beginning of the second half of the tenth century.
There are two other triptyches similar to the one in the Louvre; one is preserved at the Palace of Venice, the other at the Vatican in Rome. All three depict the Deesis with friezes of the saints and apostles.
The Harbaville family
The provenance of this triptych is still unknown. It derives its name from its last owner, Louis-François Harbaville (1791-1866), a member of the Académie d'Arras and president of the Commission des Monuments Historiques du Pas-de-Calais, who inherited it from his in-laws, the Beugny de Pommeras family from Arras. It was purchased in 1891 from Henri and Rémi Trannin, his grandsons and heirs.