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A Byzantine vision of Paradise — The Harbaville Triptych

Harbaville Triptych, mid-10th century, Constantinople, ivory with traces of polychromy, 28.2 x 24.2 x 1.2 cm (Musée du Louvre) A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Lady Narrator] We're in the Louve looking at a small exquisite Byzantine ivory that dates from the mid 10th century. - [Man Narrator] This is the middle Byzantine period soon after the iconophiles won their battle with the iconoclasts. - [Lady Narrator] From the 700ths through to the mid 800ths the Byzantine emperor had instituted a policy of Iconoclasm that is disallowing images in churches, disallowing religious imagery. - [Man Narrator] But when this was overturned artwork flourish throughout the Empire. - [Lady Narrator] And this is a period that art historians referred to as the Macedonian revival. - [Man Narrator] We're looking at a triptych, which is to say it is a three paneled ivory and you can see that it's hinged so that the doors could actually close and protect the interior scene. It's carved on both the front and the back. - [Lady Narrator] At the top center, we see a scene that is common during this middle Byzantine period called the Deesis. - [Man Narrator] John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, the bearer of God, come to Christ and ask for his protection for his blessing on behalf of humanity. - [Lady Narrator] This triptych then formed a private devotional object that could be opened and looking at this top center panel of the Deesis one could engage in prayer and ask John and Mary for intercession with Christ on their behalf. - [Man Narrator] We see Christ seated on an elaborate throne, his right hand, his blessing, his left hand holds the Bible and we see his feet on a foot rest that appears really quite architectural. - [Lady Narrator] Above Christ, on either side we see roundels with figures of angels. What we noticed throughout the triptych is that all the figures have inscriptions next to them indicating who they are. - [Man Narrator] I'm struck by just how fine the carving is look, for instance, on the right side of Mary's gown, you can see the fringes clearly and carefully rendered, as well as the folds of the drapery. - [Lady Narrator] And also in the back of the throne behind Christ. - [Man Narrator] Extraordinary craftsmanship. - [Lady Narrator] Now, there are five figures below Christ and they represent five of the apostles, the center one is St. Peter. - [Man Narrator] Who we can see grasping a scroll with his left hand and pointing up to Christ with his right. - [Lady Narrator] All the figures stand on little platforms. - [Man Narrator] The only exception are in the upper registers of the wings, where we see warrior saints who stand on the ground plane below them are rondels and then again, standing figures. Here we see saints and martyrs. - [Lady Narrator] The warrior saints seem to have a classical pose to them, they seem to stand in a kind of contrapposto, although the proportions of their bodies are a little bit off, but they do have that sense of leaning to one side of having their weight born on one side of having one knee bent of their hips a little bit out a sense of asymmetry to their bodies. - [Man Narrator] The ease to their stance, they seem quite relaxed. In fact, despite the formality of the Deesis and of all of the figures, there's a sense of individuality to each figure that's being rendered, which has been achieved only because of the very fine nature of the carving. Let's go take a look at the back. The back is more shallowly carved. Here we see saints and church fathers. - [Lady Narrator] We have a symbolic representation of the garden of paradise. - [Man Narrator] It's a marvelous rendering with lots of detail and a real sense of the vertical as if the plants themselves on the ground plane are reaching up to heaven. - [Lady Narrator] Up toward the cross. - [Man Narrator] Which is long and elegant and has rosettes not only at the center but at its four points. - [Lady Narrator] We have cypress trees, with vines and circling them and grapes. - [Man Narrator] Leaning in as if the cross itself was almost magnetic. - [Lady Narrator] A real sense of the beauty and abundance of paradise of the promise of salvation of the promise of eternal life and a sense that from the very cross itself from Christ's sacrifice, life blooms. - [Man Narrator] And look at the orderliness of the stars in the heavens. This is a sense of solemnity, a sense of beauty and a sense of the spiritual in the natural world, which we tend to think of in more modern terms but here it is in the 10th century. (upbeat music)