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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:24

Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Steven] We found a relatively quiet corner of the British Museum, which is not an easy thing to do. - [Beth] We're looking at a Byzantine ivory that dates to the sixth century. - [Steven] And so, it's a small miracle that it's come down to us through history, because a moveable object like this is so easily destroyed. - [Beth] And in fact, part of this was lost. This was originally part of a diptych. In other words, it was attached by hinges to another ivory panel with which it was related. - [Steven] Things that strikes a modern viewer first is the fact that this is an enormous piece of ivory. This came from the tusk of an elephant, and of course, right now in the 21st century, we're in a race to save elephants. And so, we look at this object with a different eye than we might in a previous historical moment. - [Beth] But in fact, ivory carvings were common in the ancient Roman world and in the Byzantine world. - [Steven] And ivory was treasured because of its smooth texture, because of its relatively hard but carvable surface. And ivory, especially at this scale, was a luxury object that was imported from Africa, from Asia, or sometimes it was the tusks of walruses or even of mammoths that had been uncovered. - [Beth] This is one of the largest ivories to come down to us from the Byzantine period. - [Steven] The frame is filled with the large figure of an angel, probably the Archangel Michael. He stands at the top of a stair under an elaborately carved arch, holding in his right hand an orb with a cross on it. And in the left, he holds a staff or a scepter. - [Beth] We can tell that he's an angel because he has these beautiful, long wings. And that orb is a symbol of power. An orb is a sphere which might remind us of the sphere of the Earth, and on top of that, the cross. So this idea of the triumph of Christianity. - [Steven] And this is one of the reasons that art historians believe that the other panel would likely have depicted the Emperor Justinian. Justinian was among the most powerful Byzantine emperors. And it's possible that this ivory was carved to commemorate his ascension to the throne. - [Beth] Beneath the arch, a wreath of victory, and inside that wreath, the cross. So it's this interesting moment where the Roman Empire has moved east. It's lost much of its territory in the west, although Justinian does reconquer much of it. But this interesting blending of ancient Roman art traditions with the new Christianity of the Roman Empire, of the Byzantine Empire. - [Steven] It's important not to flatten history and to remember how much time elapses between eras. Here we have the Byzantine looking back to the ancient Roman, and before that, to the ancient Greek. The classical era in ancient Greece began a thousand years before this panel was carved. And we see the echo of ancient Rome in the very way that the figure is represented and especially in the way that the drapery hangs over that body. This is a style of representation that is looking back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. - [Beth] That drapery reminds us of so many ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. The way that it clings to the body. We see the forms of the legs. We get a sense of where the hips are. The shoulders. We're drawn to that drapery and those lovely folds. Look closely at his left arm and the drape that hangs down and how you can see a shadow underneath it that gives us a sense of how deeply carved that is. I mean, this is so beautifully carved. This ivory really rewards close looking. The lovely fluting on the columns, the Corinthian capitals, which are so finely carved to really see those acanthus leaves, the little volutes at the top, and that lovely garland or ribbon that crosses the arch. - [Steven] And the rosettes that fill the space on either side of the arch. - [Beth] This was probably one of the most skilled craftsmen in the workshop of the emperor in Constantinople. - [Steven] But or all of its classicism, that is, its references back to ancient Greece, to ancient Rome, we can't look at this panel and not be reminded that this is Byzantine. The artist is willing to play fast and loose with space. The figure seems not to stand on the stairs so much as to float above and in front of those stairs. The scepter is held by a figure that stands seemingly at the top step, and yet the scepter stands outside of the arch. And so the artist, like the figure, is no longer trapped by the naturalistic conventions of the classical world. - [Beth] There are several translations of this inscription. The one that seems to be most commonly used is, "Receive this suppliant despite his sinfulness." So the person on the other side of the diptych is being welcomed by the angel that we see here into the court of heaven. - [Steven] And so what we're seeing here is likely a commemoration of the ascension of an important figure to the throne, possibly Justinian, a Christian, but a Christian who is heir to the great Roman tradition. - [Beth] And here we see the classicism of the Roman Empire in this Byzantine ivory likely made in Constantinople, today Istanbul, but which we are looking at here in the British museum. (light piano music)