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

Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Steven] 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.E. - [Beth] And that's such an important moment in Europe because it's at the end of the fourth century that Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the practice of pagan religions is outlawed. - [Steven] 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 that the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans used to represent nobility. The drapery is depicted with incredible detail. - [Beth] We can see the fabric pulling around her breast, around her arm, falling over her shoulder. We have a sense of human body underneath that drapery. - [Steven] 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 born on a single leg. - [Beth] She's so elegant, so noble. All of these things remind me of Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman sculpture. - [Steven] 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. - [Beth] 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. - [Steven] 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 Bacchus, the god of wine. - [Beth] 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? - [Steven] 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 Symmachi. - [Beth] And the other ivory panel that this goes with is inscribed to the Nicomachi, another prominent patrician family that the Symmachi were associated with. Both of these noble Roman families wanted to maintain the ancient pagan traditions. - [Steven] Even in the face of the growing importance of Christianity. Art 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. - [Beth] 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 pagan Ancient Greece and Rome. (light piano music)