Diptych leaf of the Nicomachi

Rome, 388-401 
Ivory, 29.9 x 12.6 cm


The diptych leaf and its companion at the Victoria and Albert Museum were apparently preserved together until the nineteenth century, when they were acquired by different museums. This panel, of the Nicomachi, shows numerous fractures along the grain of the ivory; several pieces of the plaque are now lost; the face of the human figure and its left hand have been sheared off; and the torch in the figure's right arm is broken and missing in areas where it had obviously been carved in the round. However damaged the panel, the subject matter is relatively clear: a priestess stands before a round altar with sacrificial fire. She is dressed in a simple sleeveless garment that has slipped to reveal her right breast. The priestess holds two lighted torches, perhaps indicative of a nocturnal ritual, and she stands in front of a large pine tree from which hang cymbals or bells, references to the cult of Magna Mater. 
The philosophical disposition of the senatorial patrons has been cited as an explanation of the classicistic style of the reliefs (most clearly visible in the handling of the draperies), which is comparable to that of the diptych of Probianus and of the Asklepios and Hygieia diptych now in Liverpool. All of these works date to the beginning of the fifth century and may have been commissioned by patrons in similar social circles within the city of Rome. 
While the style of this leaf and of its companion is clearly classicistic, it is just as clearly Late Antique. The relaxed posture of the priestess of this relief and the careful distinction of the light, clinging drapery of her upper torso and the heavy, hanging folds of her lower torso show an understanding of classical models. The posture of the priestess of its companion, who steps into the background but presents her upper body in profile, strikes a note of quiet discord. Her posture is masked by elegant drapery passages, but her large-headed, slightly stocky proportional type is one from the Late Antique period. She is attended by a disproportionately small attendant, whose shoulder structure is not clearly understood or executed. The altar of the Symmachorum panel demonstrates a certain spatial ambiguity: while top and bottom moldings describe a rectangular solid rendered in perspective, a garland hangs across the altar as if it were a single, flat plane. In both panels, the illusion of pictorial space is created and simultaneously negated by the postures of the main figures, who, standing and acting within the confines of the panel, overlap the frames with portions of their draperies, their bodies, and their attributes. 

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016