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Trier Ivory

The Trier Ivory shows a fifth-century imperial procession focused on the augusta Pulcheria, translating a relic of St Stephen to Hagios Stephanos in Daphne.

This ivory panel, now located in Trier, depicts an emperor and an empress in an architectural setting, with a colonnade in the background and a four-sided portico on the left with an image of Christ clearly identifiable by his cruciform nimbus in the lunette above one side. It is generally accepted that this portico is meant to represent the Chalke Gate, and it is in fact the sign that the action depicted look place within the precinct of the imperial palace.

It has been demonstrated that the subject matter of the ivory is the translation of a relic St. Stephen into Constantinople in 421 (the relic, a small gabled casket, is held by the two clerics in the cart). But the identification of the scenes as a translation of relics in 421 does not mean that the ivory itself must date from the early fifth century. Indeed, it has been suggested that the story of the 421 translation was invented after the fact: ignored by all fifth-century commentators (induding Sozomen, a staunch promoter of Pulcheria, the empress shown receiving the relic). The event itself is first recorded much later by Theophanes the Confessor.

It was almost certainly produced in Constantinople, was probably part of a reliquary (presumably for a relic of St. Stephen), and was most likely housed in the church so prominently depicted on it. The ivory dates at the earliest to the years around 800. It also hase been argued that the event depicted never happened but was invented in the first decade of the ninth century – thus suggests an even later date of creation. The unusual prominence of an empress on the panel hints that its creation dates to the reign of Eirene, known for her association with Hagios Stephanos. This church located in the imperial palace and was the site where Eirene and Leo IV ‘received the marital crown’ in 769. The lack of comparable materiel unfortunately does not allow this speculation to be taken further.


Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, C. 680-850: A History by Leslie Brubaker, John Heldon

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