12th century French ivory carvers developed this pose — a kind of left-twisting of the body of Christ. Some say the object was to create a sense of three dimensional depth; I say, it was simply discovered to be especially graceful.
No other French left-twisted ivory crucifixion which I have seen is as graceful as this one. Which is, of course, why it is the only one unmarked — legendless! — in the Gulbenkian collection. This is always the fate of things I like: my favorite paintings are not reproduced; my favorite movies are never screened (or sold, or fileshared); my favorite books are untranslated, long out of print, not to be found anywhere.
And, I am sure, what would have been my greatest favorites, of course, are not even published, which is why I am doomed not to even know them.
At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum locates a traumatic event about four years ago, when, obliged by the terms of a car-rental agreement, I went into a car-wash, my first ever. It is hard for me to imagine a less aesthetically pleasing experience: noise, ugly interior, ugly exterior composed of shaved lawn, cement and a large soft-drink hoarding, twenty minutes of my time wasted in agony so that someone else’s ugly car could emerge spotlessly shining. I peeled away from the establishment with a screech of tires, as if chased by a banshee. Behind me there was a long line of cars waiting their turn at beautification.
Descending into the medieval gallery of the V&A (how appropriate to place the middle ages in the subterranean murk) one day, I suddenly did a double-take of recognition. Wait, said my inner voice to me, I know this piece.
Well, it turns out, I knew it not — but its twin, the Nochimmachi plaque, at the Musee de Moyen Age in Paris:
This had had a similarly electrifying effect on me when I saw it back in 2005: the quality of design and carving is incredible, it hits one in the face like a Mack truck, its effect only heightened by the terrible damages it has sustained. The plaques, it seems, were made to commemorate a wedding of two prominent Roman families after the Theodosius decree (forbidding any religious practice other than Christianity). Punishments were severe; but active resistance continued even at the highest echelons of the society and it took the form of… art.
The Diptych’s story has many twists — they survived the mass destruction (“adaptation”) of pagan art during early medieval ages and seems to have been treasured by some Christian holy men — no less — only to be stolen, broken up and partially destroyed during the French revolution: the Parisian panel was rediscovered at the bottom of a well.
You can read more about it here.
Leaf from Consular Diptych of Flavius Anastasius
“The consul is shown holding the mappa circensis, a ceremonial cloth with which he gave the signal for the games to begin. Sences
from the games are shown below. Traces of writing on the reverse indicate that the diptych was adapted for Christian use, to record the names of saints and those for whom prayers were to be said.”
Byzantium was the center of production of ivories like this. This one, made perhaps in the 10th century AD, has eventually made its way to the Cathedral of Veroli, in central Italy. There are 43 such caskets from the period surviving, decorated with scenes of classical mythology, illustrating what was perhaps a fashion for classical antiquity in 1oth century Byzantium. The scenes’ references aren’t very clear: there is Bacchus riding a chariot pulled by lions (rather than panthers); and elements of the stories of Europa, Iphigenia, and Bellorophon; put together, says Kenneth Clark, with little understanding of the original significance.
To paraphrase a great philosopher: if it looks good, it is good [and damn the meaning].