Thursday, September 11, 2014

First narrative portrayal of crucifion - the Maskell ivories

Christ Triumphat and hanging Judas
Plaque from the Maskell ivories. AD 420-30, Rome 
image courtesy of British Museum Highlights

British Museum highlights site tells
Panel from an ivory casket: the Crucifixion of Christ

Late Roman, AD 420-30
Probably made in Rome

The earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion

This plaque is one of four, which though now separated, must originally have been mounted on the four sides of a small square casket. Each is carved with scenes from Christ’s Passion. The other panels depict Christ carrying the Cross, the empty Sepulchre and Doubting Thomas.

This is the earliest known narrative portrayal of the Crucifixion. It is combined with another scene of death, the hanging of Judas. The stiff, clothed body of Judas pulls down the branch of a tree and a spilled sack of coins lies at his feet. In contrast the exposed limbs of Christ appear still vigorous, and He gazes at the viewer, triumphant in death. A plaque over Christ’s head is inscribed REX IUD[AEORUM] (‘King of the Jews’). Mary and John stand in similar poses to the left of the cross, while on the right Longinus steps from beneath the arm of the cross across the frame into the viewer’s space. In the branch of the tree which bends towards Christ, a bird feeds her chicks – a symbol of the life-giving power of His death.
Read the entire text from British Museum highlights

Date of the ivories
Felicity Harvey-McGown writes that the ivory is commonly dated to the time of the Theodosian dynasty.
Although nothing specific is known about the provenance of the reliefs,various scholars have noted the classicizing style on which they draw, including the rendering of drapery, the gestures, and strong modelling of the human form in the depiction of Jesus’ crucified body.

Both this style and the technical standard have seen the panels firmly aligned with ivory diptychs commissioned in the late fourth and early fifth centuries by the wealthy Roman senatorial classes to commemorate both private events (such as marriages or deaths) and public events (primarily appointments to the position of consul).

These diptychs are often inscribed with the names of those who commissioned them, and can be assigned a specific centre of production on account of historical data in addition to stylistic evidence.
They thereby provide an important chronological framework within which to date Christian ivories, and suggest possible places of manufacture. Indeed, on account of such comparisons with datable ivories produced in Roman ateliers, the Maskell Ivories are customarily dated around AD 420–30 and attributed to a Western centre of production, possibly Rome, although the lack of certainty should be noted
Read Felicity Harvey-McGown's article

Details of crucifixion
The technical details in depicting the crucifixion resemble those in the doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina as Christ stands head up and rather comfortably on His legs. He is modestly dressed in a loincloth. However, the hands pierced by nails are extended straight to both sides unlike in the basilica door carving where the artist showed arms bent (perhaps wanting to save precious space for the art work). There is no indication of any stress on the hands of the crucified strengthening the view that the artist had no first hand knowledge of this form of torture and execution.

Few details of the cross are visible in the ivory but it seems to be an artistic one rather than depiction of a simple wooden cross.

It seems that on the ivory behind the head of Christ the artist has drawn a circle indicated the halo of holiness. Scholars call this earliest style of crucifix "Triumphant Christ". The victorious figure is in strong contrast to the looser, the hanged Judas to the left.

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