Crowning of Otto II and Theophano

Western Europe (Germanic Empire? Italy?), 982 -983
Sculpted elephant ivory, traces of polychrome
Dimensions : H. 18.5 x W, 10.6 cm


Inscribed: In Greek, on either side of the head of Christ, IC XC (Jesus Christ); in Latin and Greek, above the emperor, OTTO IMP[ERATOR] R[O]MAN [ORUM] Α[ΥΓΟΥΣΤΟ]C (Otto, Emperor of the Romans, Augustus); in Greek and Latin, above the head of the empress, ΘΕΟΦΑNΩ IMP[ERATRIX] Α[ΥΓΟΥΣΤΟ]C (Theophano, Empress, Augusta); in Greek, next to the body of Christ, Κ[ΥΡΙ]Ε ΒΟΗΘ[Ε]Ι ΤΩ C[Ω] ΔΟΥΛ [Ω] ΙΩ [ΑΝΝΗ] [ΜΟΝΑ] ΧΩ ΑΜΕΜ  [Lord, come to the aid of your servant John…(monk?), (Amen?)]

As one of the most celebrated, but still enigmatic, images of an imperial couple, this relief depicts Christ conferring divine benediction upon the German emperor Otto II (r. 973-83) and his wife, Theophano. Christ's gesture of blessing both figures simultaneously is appropriated from portrayals of coronation and wedding ceremonies. Based on the inscription, the panel must date to 982 / 83, since the title impemtor romanorum was first used in 982 and Otto died the following year. Otto's marriage to the Byzantine princess Theophano, a niece of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, took place in Rome in 972. Consequently, the ivory appears to rep- resent both Eastern and Western imperial claims (as suggested by the title Augusta) by utilizing Christ's blessing for political objectives. The figure below Otto, in a pose of proskynesis, is believed to be John Philagathos of Calabria, who, by 980, was Otto's chancellor in Italy, the tutor of Otto III, and a confidant of Theophano; named bishop of Piacenza by 988, he would later become antipope John XVI (997-98). He is also the likely donor of the plaque.

A Byzantine ivory — possibly the one recently reidentified as depicting Romanos II, co-emperor from 945, and Empress Bertha-Eudokia, who was the daughter of Hugh of Provence and who died in 949 — served as the iconographic model for the present work. The historical significance of the plaque, its possible function, and a confirmation of its date may be determined from a related scene in the prayer book (formerly in Saint-Remi, Reims, but now lost) of Queen Emma, the stepsister of Otto II and wife of the French king Lothair (r. 954-86). Known only from an engraving recorded in J. Mabillon's Annates ordinis Sancti Benedicti (1707), the image includes a royal family shown receiving Christ's benediction. According to information provided to Mabillon, the image was the frontispiece to Psalm 66 (65), whose subject is homage to God and rule by power. The occasion for such a symbolic image was possibly the coronation of Lothair at Compiegne on Pentecost sometime between 979 and his death in 986, thus making it contemporary with the ivory. The lost scene from the psalter is iconographically related to the present ivory, as well as to the "Otto Imperator" ivory of Christ blessing the imperial family, in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan. These thematic associations suggest that the purpose of the panel may have been to adorn the cover of a royal psalter, possibly one belonging to Theophano. Indeed, the figure of Theophano in the ivory clutches a book to her breast — a detail that does not occur in other explicit depictions of royal coronation or wedding ceremonies, whether Eastern or Western. Equally unusual is that Otto holds a heart (reshaped object. Thus, the pictorial message of the ivory may be linked to the themes evoked in the psalter for which it served as a cover.

The desire to emulate Byzantine imagery in this ivory— its propagandizing theme presented under a baldachin, the imperial attire, and the presence of crowns with hanging ornaments, or prependoulia — is subverted by the inclusion of westernizing stylistic elements such as the parted curtain that reveals the scene; the illogical relationship of figures and frame; the choice of a mantle as the emperor's garment rather than the Byzantine loros; and the presence of a donor figure. In addition, this panel certainly was intended as a book cover — a function unknown for ivories in Byzantium. The overall effect of the image, whose inscription co-opts a Byzantine title (Imperator Romanorum) for Western political purposes, and its composite appearance make this manifestly a Latin work, yet one whose existence would be unthinkable without its Byzantine precedents. Together, these qualities support the hypothesis that the ivory was created in Italy, probably at the instigation of John Philagathos.

Otto wears a crown surmounted by an arc. This feature, also found on the imperial crown in the Vienna Schatzkammer, provides visual confirmation that the acclaimed coronation crown of the Holy Roman emperors, whose date has been disputed, is, indeed, that made for Otto.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016