Golden Age of Byzantine Art IV: Byzantine ivories

The Colossus of Barletta, a large bronze statue of 5.11 meters high representing an Eastern Roman Emperor, now in the city of Barletta, Italy.

Most of the sculptures that adorned Byzantium are gone, but the relics of the Byzantine sculpture that we know today show that in Constantinople the techniques employed by the Greco-Roman schools of art were also used. There is a giant bronze statue (known today as  the Colossus of Barletta) taken as part of the booty during the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians and that was likely to be placed as a trophy on the Piazza San Marco. This was probably a statue of the emperor Heraclius. Also, the so called Barberini ivory of the Louvre Museum has a portrait of a Byzantine Emperor from the times previous to the iconoclastic controversy.  This ivory was thought to be carved at the end of the Vth century or the beginnings of the VIth. It consists of an ivory leaf from an imperial diptych composed of five plates, the central one, of large dimensions (34 cm height), it is supposed to represent the emperor Zeno who, wearing breastplate, imperial mantle, and headband, appears riding his richly dressed horse while driving on the ground his lance that a barbarian touches in signal of submission. A Winged Victory is next to the head of the emperor to crown him, while between the horses’ raised legs, the Earth with her lap full of fruit, is holding the Emperor’s foot. In the other plates are at the top, the beardless Savior placed within a nimbus with the scepter in blessing pose and the Sun and Moon held by two angels; to the right of the emperor a squire holds a statue of Victory, and another plate at the bottom forming a frieze depicts barbarians and geniuses offering exotic presents.

The Barberini ivory, ca. first half of the 6th century (Louvre, Paris).

Other portraits reveal the meticulous civil and religious bureaucracy of Byzantium. From the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire we have several portraits of barons and magnates full of character, such as those of the so-called consular diptychs* which were double ivory plaques carved to commemorate the access to consular dignity by some exalted personage. These magnates were represented with their jeweled embroidered robe at the time of lifting the handkerchief to signal the beginning of the games in the circus.

Ivory consular diptych of Areobindus, ca. 506 AD (Louvre, Paris).

Some princesses or empresses of Byzantium deserved the honor of being portrayed in sculpture. They were the great ladies of the Golden Byzantine Age and were portrayed showing the same strength typical of the ancient Roman portrait, like those of Theodora, Ariadna or Eudoxia.


*Consular diptych: In Late Antiquity, a consular diptych was a type of diptych intended as a de-luxe commemorative object. A diptych is a pair of linked panels, generally in ivory, wood or metal and decorated with rich relief sculpture. A consular diptych was commissioned by a consul ordinarius to mark his entry to that post, and was distributed as a commemorative reward to those who had supported his candidature or might support him in future.