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The Virgin and Child and St Catherine with the Emperor Maxentius

  • Object:

    Diptych

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (made)

  • Date:

    1300-1330 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Elephant ivory, with traces of colour and gilding

  • Museum number:

    4-1872

  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case DR9

This is an ivory diptych, made in Paris, France in about 1300-1330. Plaques such as this were normally arranged in diptychs or triptychs. Diptychs consisted of two tablets hinged together, while triptychs were two tablets hinged on either side of a central tablet. The smaller ones were probably held in the hand and opened like a small book, while the larger ones would have stood open on a table or altar.
This diptych shows on the left leaf the Virgin and Child with a kneeling worshipper and on the right St. Catherine trampling on the Emperor Maxentius. Each subject surmounted by a trefoil arch, in the spandrels of which are gilded circles each enclosing a red cross. St Catherine was a virgin martyr executed by the Roman emperor Maxentius in the 4th century. She is one of the most popular female saints in the later Middle Ages. Although whole diptychs are sometimes devoted to her story, depictions of Catherine trampling Maxentius are rare in surviving ivories, and the composition here, with Catherine kneeling on the Emperor's prone body in order to pin him to the floor, is unusual.

The devotional diptych is in many ways the object type most associated with the notion of Gothic ivory carving. The earliest examples probably date to the 1240s; these are complex, large and ambitious works that emerged, somewhat surprisingly, with no obvious precursors. The owners of ivory diptychs sometimes appear within their images. Such portraits indicate that they were special requests on the part of their commissioners, and they parallel the similar figures that appear in manuscripts and panel paintings of the period. The iconography of Gothic diptychs oscillated between two poles. The first of which is the desire to present narratives (Life of Christ and Virgin Mary) for envisaging. The second was the use of non-narrative images to form the focus of devotion.

Physical description

Ivory diptych, with traces of gilding and colour, in a silver frame of a later date. On the left leaf the Virgin and Child with a kneeling worshipper, on the right St. Catherine trampling on the Emperor Maxentius. Each subject surmounted by a trefoil arch, in the spandrels of which are gilded circles each enclosing a red cross.
The seated Virgin holds the Christ-Child. Jesus raises his right hand towards his mother in a blessing gesture, while holding a small object - probably and apple - in his left. The Virgin holds a flower in her right hand. Kneeling to the left is a male lay devotee. The right leaf shows St. Catherine, crowned, holding a book in her left hand and a sword in her right. She kneels on the supine figure of the Emperor Maxentius, into whose neck she thrusts her sword.

The devotional diptych is in many ways the object type most associated with the notion of Gothic ivory carving. The earliest examples probably date to the 1240s; these are complex, large and ambitious works that emerged, somewhat surprisingly, with no obvious precursors. The owners of ivory diptychs sometimes appear within their images. Such portraits indicate that they were special requests on the part of their commissioners, and they parallel the similar figures that appear in manuscripts and panel paintings of the period. The iconography of Gothic diptychs oscillated between two poles. The first of which is the desire to present narratives (Life of Christ and Virgin Mary) for envisaging. The second was the use of non-narrative images to form the focus of devotion.

Place of Origin

Paris (made)

Date

1300-1330 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Elephant ivory, with traces of colour and gilding

Dimensions

Height: 6.2 cm, Width: 6.9 cm

Object history note

Purchased from John Webb, London, in 1872, for £30. Previously on loan to the Museum from 1867.

Descriptive line

Diptych, ivory with traces of gilding and colour, the Virgin and Child with St Catherine and the Emperor Maxentius, French (Paris), ca. 1300-1330

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1872, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 1
Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, Part II, p. 27
Barnet, Peter, ed. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Ages. Detroit, Mich.: Detroit Institute of Arts; Princeton, N. J.: in association with Princeton University Press, 1997, p. 91
p. 143
Maskell, W. A Description of the Ivories Ancient and Medieval in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1872
part 1, pp. 256-257
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014, part 1, pp. 256-257, cat. no. 81
Davies Glyn and Townsend, Eleanor, ed. by, A Reservoir of Ideas: Essays in Honour of Paul Williamson, London, Paul Holberton Publishing in assoc with V&A Publishing, 2017, pp.192-194, fig.5

Materials

Elephant ivory

Techniques

Gilding

Subjects depicted

Sword

Categories

Christianity; Sculpture; Religion

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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