Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Life of Christ in a 5th Century Ivory Diptych

Among the many artistic treasures preserved in the cathedral museum of Milan, one of the most ancient is an ivory diptych produced in northern Italy, very likely at Ravenna, in the later 5th century. It is known as the Diptych of the Five Parts, since each of the two panels is assembled out of five separately carved pieces. The events of Our Lord’s life which are celebrated in the current liturgical season are particularly prominent on the large panels at the top and bottom of both sides; this is generally understood as an assertion, in the light of the Christological controversies of the 5th century, as an assertion of the fullness of Christ’s humanity united to the divinity in the Incarnation. Thanks to Nicola for sharing these pictures with us. Beneath the photos of the diptych, I have included two others of a very beautiful cover for a Gospel book, made in the early 11th century.

The upper panel of the front side: the Nativity of Christ, with two symbols of the Evangelists to either side, Matthew and Luke, who give the genealogies of Christ. St Joseph is dressed as a Roman shepherd, but holds a carpenter’s saw. 
The Massacre of the Holy Innocents, with the evangelists themselves to either side.
The upper part of the left panel shows an episode from an apocryphal Gospel, in which an angel comes to the Virgin Mary as she draws water at a well before the Annunciation: below it are depicted the three Magi, pointing to the star of the Nativity, and below that, the Baptism of Christ. 
It is not certain which episode is depicted on the upper section of the right panel, either the Presentation of the Virgin in the temple, or an episode from another apocryphal Gospel, in which She is subjected to an ordeal to prove Her innocence after She is found to be pregnant. Beneath it are shown the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple, and His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

In the center is mounted an image of the Lamb of God made with the technique now known by the French name “cloisonné”, in which colored material of various kinds (here gemstones, but in many other examples, colored enamel) are set between metal wires (here gold.) This technique is very ancient, with examples dating back as far as the 12th century BC, but examples in early Christian art are extremely rare, much less ones as well preserved as this. 
The reverse of the diptych.
In the upper panel, the Adoration of the Magi, with the symbols of the Evangelists Ss Mark and John. 
At the bottom, the Wedding at Cana, an episode which the Church Fathers of the 5th century associated with the Epiphany, according to what they regarded as a tradition already ancient. It is the Gospel of the Sunday after the octave of the Epiphany in both the Roman and Ambrosian Rites. 
On the left side, the healing of a blind man, of the paralytic, and the Resurrection of Lazarus.

On the right side, Christ gives crowns to two martyrs, the Last Supper, and a rare depiction of the story of the Widow’s Mite (Luke 21, 1-4.)

The front side of this cover for a Gospel book is a gold plaque decorated with gold filigree, enamel, pearls, and a variety of precious stones. It is named for the archbishop of Milan during whose tenure it was produced, Aribert of Intimiano, who held the see from 1018 to 1045).

The chased silver back panel shows St John presenting the archbishop to Christ and the Virgin in the upper section, and in the lower section, St Ambrose with the martyrs Ss Protasius and Gervasius, who are buried along side him in the basilica named after him.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: