Diptych of Helios and Selene

Egypt (?), early 5th century
Ivory, Each leaf, 31.5 x 12.5 cm
Sens, Bibliotheque Municipale

Both panels are well preserved, if slightly worn, and must have been made together. In size, shape, elements of design, and the echoes of classical themes, the panels relate very closely to each other. Helios dominates the left panel as he rises in his chariot, drawn by centaurs over the sea in which three tritons are sporting. Yet his imagery reveals many Dionysiac infusions: Helios holds a thyrsus in his left hand, a kantharos in the right, while a satyr accompanies and supports him. Even the centaurs carry a brimming kantharos, full of wine. In the upper middle, the small equestrian, preceded by a whelk-blowing satyr, probably represents Dionysos triumphant, and the top of the panel is filled by the classic Dionysiac theme of winemaking. This association of Helios-Apollo and Dionysiac rites formed the basis of Orphic poetry, especially in its later emphasis on sin, suffering, death, and the final escape from evil through divine intervention. The same cosmic frame of reference (land, sea, air) sets the stage for the other panel, dominated by the rising moon goddess Selene. Drawn upward in her chariot by two great bulls and accompanied by sea creatures, she soars over the sea deity Thetis. The bulls are led by a naked daimon with staff and whelk; beside him a nude female stands, holding a tray of offerings (?), while above her appear two beings at ease, possibly Horae, flanked by olive trees. The figures of a winged Eros weaving a garland at the upper right and of Aphrodite in the shell at the upper left signal the epiphany of these gods. It seems, then, that the two panels represent the cosmos, sweetened by Dionysos' presence; two divine beings ascend from the universal sea to what appears to be land but is probably meant to imply paradise. Although the purpose of this diptych is unknown, it follows the devotional patterns of Late Antique syncretistic religion. The iconography, the rounded, schematic forms, and the emphasis on textures have been related to bone carvings and textiles from late Roman Egypt. It should be noted, however, that these panels have used the same zigzag composition evident in the lion hunt diptych, but in a cruder, more linear style.