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Triptych with the Virgin Hodegetria and Saints
Triptych with the Virgin Hodegetria and

Middle Byzantine, late 10th century

Ivory, 22.4x15.8cm


The small size of this triptych indicates that it was used for private, rather than public prayer. When closed, each wing displays a tall, slender cross placed on top of three steps. Opened, the triptych reveals a half-length image of the Mother of God holding the Christ Child--the Hodegetria type--set below an openwork baldachin supported on spirally-fluted columns; on each wing there are three bust-length figures, turned towards the central group: angels appear above two saints, with the compartments divided from each other by a bead-and-reel frame.

The Hodegetria, the image of the Mother of God holding the Christ Child on her left arm and pointing toward him with her right, was by far the most widespread image of  these figures in Byzantine art. Though there are many variations, they are believed to reflect a famous icon housed in the Constantinopolitan Hodegon Monastery, from which the name of the type derives. The significance of the Hodegon icon was that it had reputedly been executed by the evangelist St. Luke, a tradition, however documented no earlier than the late twelfth century.

Unlike many ivory icons, which have the names of the figures incised, this triptych has no identifying inscriptions. The figure on the wings who can be recognized with certainty is St. John Prodromos (the Forerunner; or the Baptist), located in the center to the right. His long hair and beard, the fringed cloak closed over his chest, and the gesture of entreaty, known from the many representations of the Deesis, are details that identify him. The other figures do not have such details of dress or attribute to identify them; however, they were identified in Goldschmidt-Weitzmann: to the left, St. John the Evangelist, and the saints in the lowest compartments (martyr-saints, holding up crosses in front of  their chests), St. Theodore to the right, and St. George to the left.

The artisan lavished considerable effort on the carving of the draperies. Compared to more classicizing carving, seen, for example, on  the three-figure ivory of a standing Hodegetria, St. John Prodromos, and St. Basil, the copious folds here tend to create linear surface patterns instead of convincing three-dimensional figures. Their shapes are, moreover, formulaic and are observable on a series of half-length Hodegetria ivories with almost identical compositions.

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