If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Emperor Triumphant (Barberini Ivory)

The Emperor Triumphant (Barberini Ivory), mid-6th century, ivory, inlay, 34.2 x 26.8 x 2.8 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(lighthearted piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Musee du Louvre in Paris looking at a very large panel of ivory that is Byzantine and we date to the early 6th century. - [Beth] These Byzantine ivories of this early date are very rare. There's another one in the British Museum. This one shows an emperor on horseback in the central panel with four panels on the four sides, one of which is lost. - [Steve] What's remarkable to me is just how deeply carved and how energized the central panel is. There's been tremendous care in representing not only fine details but also alternations between areas of deep carving and broad smooth areas, for instance of the horse's body. This is so clearly an illustration of this moment of transition between the classical tradition and the Byzantine as we will come to know it. Should we start at the top? - [Beth] Sure, we've got Christ in a medallion in the center with angels on either side. He makes a gesture of blessing and around him is a symbol of the sun, of the moon, and a star. - [Steve] He holds a scepter with a cross and looks directly out at us. You can see that he's been rendered not with the traditional long, thin face with a beard, but he's young, he's beardless and his hair is curly, which is very reminiscent of the classical tradition. - [Beth] Those two angels are very reminiscent of Nike figures, of figures of victory that we would see in Ancient Roman carving. - [Steve] Although the drapery has been simplified and is now rendered by cuts rather than fully formed folds. - [Beth] So we have this static image of divinity and below this dynamic image of the emperor riding in on a horse toward us, an emperor who is a Christian. We can see him holding the reigns as he turns the horse, planting his lance down on the ground. - [Steve] Look at the round forms of the horse's breast, or the leg that comes out and the way that the reign pulls the horse's head back in. There seems to be such a sensitivity to creating a sense of volume, to establishing space for this foreshortened horse to occupy. - [Beth] Art historians believe that the fineness of this carving indicates that this was made in a workshop in Constantinople in the capital of what we think of as the Byzantine Empire, but really was then the Roman Empire. - [Steve] Now we don't know who this imperial figure is, in fact we're really just guessing that it is an imperial figure. But we feel like we're on fairly firm grounds because of the fineness of the carving. - [Beth] All the iconography is imperial. We have a Nike figure, a figure of victory presenting the emperor with a palm branch, a symbol of victory. - [Steve] We guess that in her right hand she would've originally been holding a crown to place on his head. - [Beth] As in so many other images of Roman emperors, nearby is the figure of a vanquished foe. - [Steve] Look how that smaller figure behind the horse is represented. He's wearing a Phrygian cap which was a symbol of the other, it was a symbol of the barbarian. He's wearing pants, he's wearing closed shoes. All of these things were symbols of the barbarian. - [Beth] Barbarian here means foreigner, someone outside of the Roman Empire. - [Steve] Now under the horse we see a female figure. She's quite classicizing in the way that her drape has fallen off one shoulder. She holds in the folds of her drapery, fruits. So she becomes a symbol of plenty. Art historians think she represents perhaps conquered lands or the bounty of the earth. - [Beth] We could see her as a personification of the earth submitting to the emperor by holding the underside of his foot. - [Steve] If you look closely at the central panel you'll see that there are areas where there would have been small gems or pearls. We can see the gem for instance between the eyes of the horse. But you can also see that there would have been many others that would have decorated the horse's body. - [Beth] So that central panel is in such high relief. Look at the drapery flying back behind the emperor. There's a real sense of energy here that's contrasted with the figure of, we think, a general, or at least a very high level officer who's presenting the emperor with a statue representing victory. - [Steve] So that general is represented in much shallower relief and we can see that he's in a truncated architectural space. We can just make out Corinthian columns behind him. - [Beth] Below him is a bag, perhaps that's booty. - [Steve] That was brought back from a victory. Art historians assume that on the right side of the panel, a similar figure would have existed. - [Beth] Below we see another winged female figure, another figure of victory in the center. - [Steve] If you look closely, you can see that she's holding a trophy. At the top we see a military uniform and so this would have been a symbol of military triumph. - [Beth] On either side of her are two figures. On the left, those two figures are bearded. One seems to carry a crown, one seems to carry a container, perhaps also filled with booty, with a lion below. - [Steve] On the right side, we see other conquered peoples. These have been interpreted perhaps as people from the East. One bears an ivory tusk and the others, a staff of some sort, and between them, a tiger, and before them, an elephant. These are clearly symbols of distant peoples that have been conquered. There's a real sense of order that is being presented. The foreign peoples of the world who have submitted to the Byzantine emperor, to the Roman emperor, and the emperor resides on earth, under god in heaven. (lighthearted piano music)