Three Plaques from a Casket

Rome, c. 430

Ivory, 4.2 x 9.8 cm


The surface details of these three ivory plaques have been partially rubbed away and the plaques are pierced by drill holes. Two fragments decorated with acanthus vines and flowers, also in London, seem to belong to the same casket.

The first plaque portrays an apocryphal miracle of Peter. The scene has been erroneously identified as Moses' Water Miracle, but the figures at the right bending toward the stream are not Israelites. They are clearly identified by their fur hats (pileus ex pellibus) as Roman soldiers. The vignette can be identified with certainty, therefore, as an illustration of the legend in which Peter brings forth water from a rock so that he can baptize the two soldiers he had converted while in prison. A witness to the miracle, holding a roll, stands before a gate. This legend was first referred to in a written source in the sixth- or seventh-century "Martyrium Petri Apostoli a Lino episcopo" and later in the "Passio Processi et Martiani"; but it was already popular in pictorial works of the fourth and fifth centuries. Especially in Rome, Peter was revered as a new leader of God's people, a second Moses; and the legend of Peter's miracle probably originated as an analogue to the Water Miracle of Moses. On the second plaque, which depicts Peter resurrecting Tabitha (Acts 9:40-41), a similar witness stands behind Peter. The apostle extends his hand toward the woman, who sits upright on her deathbed. A companion of the ailing Tabitha crouches at Peter's feet, and, at the left, another woman flees in terror. The third plaque depicts two episodes from the life of St. Paul: the apocryphal tale of Thecla listening to Paul reading is shown at the left and at the right is a representation of the stoning of Paul.

The style of the reliefs is Roman. The figures have the large, round heads and energetic gestures that belong to the same late Roman tradition as the Probianus Diptych and the London Passion Ivories. The Peter and Paul plaques, however, are somewhat later.

It is likely that these scenes from the lives of two apostles originated in an extended narrative cycle, perhaps a now lost illustrated apocryphal text. Neither the detailed cycle in the nave of S. Paolo fuori le mura in Rome nor the illustrated Carolingian and Byzantine manuscripts can be connected with it.

The Peter and Paul ivories are important evidence of the variety of Early Christian narrative art, which also included apostolic cycles.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016