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Three Plaques with Muses and Thiasos 

Egypt (?), 5th century

Ivory, 21 x 12 cm


The three horizontal plaques, which were once used as a Gospel book cover, came from some other object, perhaps a casket. The top and center plaques originally formed a single strip, which was cut in half and trimmed. The bottom plaque was part of a similar strip, the rest of which is lost. The upper plaques depict Artemis and Apollo surrounded by the nine muses; the figure of Apollo is shared between the two halves. The mask of Thalia, muse of comedy, is at the top left; the muse herself was trimmed away. There follow Euterpe, with the flutes; Melpomene, holding a tragic mask; Erato, playing the kithara; Artemis, leaning on a spear; and Apollo, with a swan at his feet. The second strip depicts Clio, holding a tablet; Polyhymnia, dancing; Calliope, holding a scroll; Urania, holding the celestial sphere; and finally Terpsichore, whose lyre has evidently been trim- med off. Below Clio is a small figure leaning against an amphora from which gushes water: she must be a personification of the Pierian Spring on Mt. Helikon, sacred to the muses. The subject of the bottom fragment is Dionysiac; part of the god himself can be seen at the left, leaning on a thyrsus. There follow a satyr and maenad, a figure wearing a mask and wreath and holding a child (the infant Dionysos ?), and Silenus.

The ivories have been attributed to Alexandria; the flat, deeply undercut figures have parallels in Coptic sculpture, as do their lively, if rather ungainly, proportions and exaggerated movement. The swaying rhythms of the muses suggest that they are dancing. Apollo appears here because he is the traditional leader of the muses, but the presence of Artemis is curious. She may have been added because she is Apollo's sister, but it is also possible that the ivory carver has adapted her from an Athena in his model; the patroness of knowledge often appears in this position on the muse sarcophagi. In fact, the composition may well be derived from such sarcophagi. The accurate characterization of the muses indicates full comprehension of their significance; the belief in their powers of inspiration continued throughout the early medieval period.

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