The Symmachi Panel, about 400 AD

The Symmachi Panel, unknown maker, Rome, Italy, about 400 AD, carved elephant ivory. Museum no.212-1865, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Symmachi Panel, unknown maker, Rome, Italy, about 400 AD, carved elephant ivory. Museum no.212-1865, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The carved ivory Symmachi leaf is one half of a diptych (two-fold image), the companion piece from which is now in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Both have inscriptions enabling them to be dated fairly accurately. These refer to the Symmachi and Nicomachi, two aristocratic Roman families prominent at the end of the 4th century, and the diptych represents some kind of alliance between them, probably a marriage, such as occurred between 393 to 394 and in 401. Alternatively the subject matter suggests the diptych may have celebrated an occasion on which women from these distinguished families assumed the priesthoods of the four cults of Ceres, Cybele, Bacchus, and Jupiter.

Ivory carving in late antiquity

Ivory was used extensively by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They adorned all kinds of objects – doors, caskets, beds, chairs – with plaques of this material carved in relief. Pheidias (one of the greatest Greek sculptors) and his contemporaries in the 5th century BC fashioned great cult statues out of ivory and gold, and Roman artists under the Empire revived the tradition.

We hear of portrait busts and of images of conquered cities cut from ivory carried in the triumphal processions of glorious commanders. But almost nothing of these grand antique pieces has survived. Apart from some fragments of a statue of Athena in the Vatican, only a number of small, usually rather roughly-hewn, reliefs have come down to us. In contrast, there exists a magnificent array of carved ivories from Late Antiquity, from the period about 400–600 AD.

Volbach, in his catalogue of Early Christian ivories, lists 200 of them, and of these about 150 are large, elaborately worked pieces. A considerable group is formed by the consular diptychs. These are pairs of tablets, usually about a foot high. They were commissioned each year by the new consuls (the two chief magistrates) on their accession to office, and sent out to the Emperor and to colleagues and friends in high places, as bearers of the good news, and as invitations to the festivities and games which the consuls staged to celebrate their appointments.

The two leaves of a diptych were hinged together with the images facing outwards. A shallow recess was cut into the back (the inside) of each panel, and into this was poured wax. Words of greeting and invitation were inscribed into this surface. Consular diptychs were carved with images of the consul, sometimes shown presiding over the games, usually flanked by personifications of Rome and Constantinople.

Such a diptych was the one of the consul Orestes, which was issued in Rome in the year 530. The consular diptychs are especially useful for giving us a guide to the stylistic evolution of Early Christian art as they are all precisely dated to the beginning of the year of the subject's consulship and we know where each was made – either in Rome or Constantinople.

The Symmachi-Nicomachi diptych

Consular diptych of Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes, 530 AD, carved ivory. Museum no. 139-1866, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Consular diptych of Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes, 530 AD, carved ivory. Museum no. 139-1866, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Symmachi leaf is from a diptych, though not a consular one. The companion piece is now in the Cluny Museum in Paris, and like the consular diptychs both panels have inscriptions carved into the plaques at the top, by which they can be dated fairly accurately. These refer to the Symmachi and Nicomachi, two aristocratic Roman families prominent at the end of the 4th century, and the diptych bears testimony to some kind of alliance between the families, most probably a marriage; such as occurred between 393 to 394 and in 401. Alternatively the diptych may have been presented to celebrate an occasion on which women from these distinguished families assumed the priesthoods of the four cults of Ceres, Cybele, Bacchus, and Jupiter.

The subject matter is certainly connected with these four cults, well-known in Rome up to the beginning of the 5th century, and famous for their ritual sacrifices. The Symmachi panel shows a priestess before an altar, taking corns of incense from a box to sprinkle on the fire. Her head is bound with ivy, the plant of Bacchus, and she stands beneath an oak tree, sacred to Jupiter. Before her stands a boy who holds up a wine jar and a bowl of fruit or nuts. The priestess on the Nicomachi leaf inverts the funeral torches of the Eleusinian cult of Ceres, beneath a pine from which hang cymbals - the tree and the instrument sacred to the cult of Cybele, the 'Magna Mater'.

The subject matter, the style of the carving, and the composition clearly hark back to earlier, ultimately Greek models. The prototypes were probably Roman copies or adaptations of the Greek originals, like the Amalthea relief of the early 2nd century. A relief in Aquileia shows a similar scene of dedication, to Priapus, the god of fertility. The young attendant holding a bowl, the square altar, and the oak tree appear in this relief 300 years before the production of the Symmachi-Nicomachi diptych.

Another diptych, made in about 400, also testifies to a desire to copy antique models: it shows Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing, and his little son Telesphorous; opposite is his daughter Hygieia, the goddess of health, with Eros scampering at her feet. The carver of this diptych had many models to choose from as statues of Asclepius were common in antiquity: the most famous stood in the temple on the island in the Tiber sacred to him.

The Asclepius-Hygieia diptych is especially interesting as the plates for inscriptions at the top of the leaves have been left blank: it is therefore possible that this diptych was never actually presented. If this is the case, it indicates that some diptychs were not made to order but that the names of the people were filled in after they had been sold.

Nevertheless, the fact that diptychs of this time were modelled on works hundreds of years old must be a reflection of the taste of the sculptors' patrons; the style of these diptychs is consciously archaic, even to a studied extent. Why then, did these neo-classic ivory carvings suddenly appear at the end of the 4th century in Rome?

The Pagan revival at the end of the 4th century

Leaf of a diptych of the Consul Anastasius, 517 AD, Istanbul, Turkey, ivory. Museum no. 368-1871, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Leaf of a diptych of the Consul Anastasius, 517 AD, Istanbul, Turkey, ivory. Museum no. 368-1871, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At the end of the 4th century in Rome there was a desperate last-ditch battle by the wealthy patrician families to preserve the old pagan religions, the ancient way of life, in the face of the ever-growing strength of Christianity, which had become the official state religion in 380.

The Symmachi and Nicomachi families were at the centre of the resistance and did as much as they could to protect the old beliefs against the antagonism of the Christians. They paid for the upkeep of the temples out of their own pockets, debated with the Christians about the merits of tolerance in religious matters, and edited ancient texts such as Livy and Vergil for the benefit of future generations.

It is in this context that the Symmachi-Nicomachi diptych was made; it was a conscious effort to refer back to the glories of days gone by, days when the Empire was great and powerful. Both this diptych and that of Asclepius and Hygieia illustrate visually the ideals of the last aristocratic, pagan families in Christian Rome.

In the elegance of their carving, strikingly different from works produced in the century before, the diptychs would have immediately put the recipient in mind of the splendid sculptures of an earlier and, as it seemed to the elite few, a more civilised world.

Although the idea of copying models from antiquity might have been instigated by those anxious to preserve the ancient way of life, the style soon became more widespread and was taken over for Christian usage. Clearly, craftsmen working in ivory drew no distinction between pagan and Christian-commissioned works; the subject matter differed but the style remained the same. Thus in an ivory panel in Milan showing the Maries at the Sepulchre, exactly the same border is used, Christ's tomb becomes a Roman mausoleum, and the proportions of the figures owe much to the rediscovery of classical prototypes.

The history of the Symmachi-Nicomachi diptych

The diptych affords a striking illustration of how such ivories survived intact through the centuries. In the early 18th century the diptych was apparently in the abbey of Montier-en-Der, half-way between Verdun and Troyes; it was attached to a reliquary which seems, judging from an engraving made in 1717, to date from the beginning of the 13th century.

On the base of the reliquary is an inscription that refers to the tablets being brought back from the Holy Land: 'HIIS TABULIS HOC DITAT OP 'BOCHARI' IILLI QUAS PEGRINANTI TERRA BEATA DEDIT'. This inscription in all probability echoed the writings of Adso, Abbott of Montier (died 922), in his life of his predecessor, St. Bercharius (died 675), where he says that the saint brought back from Jerusalem many relics and also some ivory tablets of great beauty.

Bercharius travelled widely and the mention of Jerusalem by Adso should not be taken as an indication of the provenance of the diptych, as Bercharius also made many trips to Rome and Adso was writing 250 years after the events.

By 1840 the reliquary and the ivories had both disappeared, probably when the monastery was suppressed in 1790 as a result of the French Revolution; in 1860 the Cluny leaf was found in a well at Montier, and the leaf now in the Victoria & Albert Museum was apparently about the same time in private hands at Montier. It was bought by the Museum in 1865.

Written by Paul Williamson, 1980, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series.
Revised 2006.

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