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Holding on to pagan traditions in the early Christian era: The Symmachi Panel

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London popularly known as the V&A and we're looking at an ivory relief carving made around the Year 400 C II and that's such an important moment in Europe because it's at the end of the 4th century that Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire and the practice of pagan religions is outlawed but what we're seeing here is definitively pagan the whole panel recalls past tradition not only in its subject matter a priestess making a sacrifice at an altar but also in the style of carving which recalls through its naturalism ancient Greece and Rome look at the two figures they're shown in perfect profile the position of the face of the ancient Greeks and later the Romans used to represent nobility the drapery is depicted with incredible detail we can see the fabric pulling around her breasts around her arm falling over her shoulder we have a sense of a human body underneath that drapery you can see where her knee bends reminding us that this is informed by the long tradition of showing figures in contrapposto that is weight borne on a single leg she's so elegant so noble all of these things remind me of ancient Greek and ancient Roman sculpture one of my favorite passages is the very delicate trim at the very bottom of her drape look at the way that the folds wrap around and create a sense of volume even in this thin piece of ivory ivory is a material that was used so often in the classical world and continues to be used through the early Christian through the medieval periods it has this lovely creamy color it gleams in the light this was originally part of a diptych that is this panel was joined to another the other panel is in a museum in Paris and shows a similar scene of a woman offering a sacrifice we're able to get a good deal of information by just looking at this panel the tree that frames both of the figures is an oak tree and this is a reference to the god Jupiter both figures have Ivy in their hair a reference to the god box god of wine so it's quite likely that she is a priestess and in sprinkling the incense she's making an offering to the god Bacchus so who would be insisting on making a pagan image at this moment at the beginning of official Christianity in the Roman Empire happily we don't have to guess inscribed in the frame at the top we see a reference to one of the leading senatorial families in Rome the samake and the other eye every panel that this goes with is inscribed to the Nicomachean other-- prominent patrician family that the samake were associated with both of these noble Roman families wanted to maintain the ancient pagan traditions even in the face of the growing importance of Christianity our historians suspect that the two panels may have been made to honor an important event that joined these two families perhaps it was a wedding and another theory suggests that it's possible that women from both families were being honored as they became priestesses so what we have here is an object that sits at a crossroads between the pagan past and the Christian future of Europe but which is insistently looking back in its style to pay in ancient Greece and Rome you