Plaque with Virgin Hodegetria
Middle Byzantine, second half of 10th century
Ivory, 16.3 x 10.5cm
In 1939, Mildred Bliss brought this plaque to Princeton for advice from the most important authority on Byzantine ivory carving at the time, Kurt Weitzmann who, with Adolf Goldschmidt, had published the corpus of Byzantine ivories in 1930 and 1934. He later recalled Mrs. Bliss showing him the piece: When I showed my enthusiasm for this entirely unknown ivory I was courteously reprimanded for having made my judgment too quickly-"It would have taken Dr. Goldschmidt a little longer to make up his mind."
Weitzmann's own initial excitement was justified, not just because the piece was previously unknown, but also because of its superior quality-seen in the subtlety of the drapery folds and the noble bearing of the figures-a level of quality suggesting an aristocratic owner, perhaps even an emperor. The piece is a remnant, actually cut from the central plaque of a triptych, as the lower frame indicates. The astragal molding is a separate piece of a kind commonly joined to the central plaque of triptychs to hold the dowels that carry the wings. Weitzmann succeeded in identifying a relief of St. Theodore in the Louvre as one of the wings for the Dumbarton Oaks ivory.
The particular assortment of saints is unique. The Baptist's gesture of pleading is found in a number of triptychs showing the Deësis (intercession), that is, the enthroned Christ in the center, flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist, and an extended hierarchy of intercessors in just such an attitude. Basil, however, never stands so close to Christ and the Mother of God as he does here. He may appear here by the special request of a buyer who bore his name. Weitzmann suggested that the piece was made for the Emperor Basil II, who reigned from 976 to 1025. Whoever the owners were, both the icon and the Saints served as mediators between them and God.