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St John the Baptist and Four Saints

  • Object:

    Plaque

  • Place of origin:

    Constantinople (made)

  • Date:

    late 10th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Elephant ivory with traces of gilding

  • Museum number:

    215-1866

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 8

Above the central figure of John the Baptist are Sts Philip and Stephen, below Sts Andrew and Thomas. The grave image of St John, staring straight ahead and blessing with his right hand, is shown in the manner of Christ Pantocrator (with the right hand raised in blessing).
The plaque is a masterpiece of technical virtuosity, but because of the extreme fragility of the leaf work and the thinness of the backgrounds to the roundels, it has suffered significant damage.
The plaque has been stylistically associated with the ivory panels on a casket now in the Bargello in Florence, which also includes half-length figures of St. John the Baptist, Philip, Andrew and Thomas.

Physical description

In the centre, in a circle made up of tubular stem which extends to the other smaller circles at the corners, is the bust of St John the Baptist, his right hand raised in benediction, in the manner of Christ Pantocrator, his left hand holding a volumen. Two smaller circles above contain the busts of St Philip and St Stephen; two below those of St Andrew and St Thomas. The space between the circles is carved with pierced foliage. With inscriptions. The plaque has snapped from top to bottom on the left side, with a large crack running through the central roundel, and two leaves of the foliage have broken off in this area. There are still considerable amouts of gilding remaining and the inscriptions were highlighted with red colouring. The eyes of the figures were filled with glass paste beads: most of these survive in part, St. Philip retains complete examples. The plaque shows the distinctive wavy lines of the husk of the ivory and the ghost of the nerve canal on the reverse.

Place of Origin

Constantinople (made)

Date

late 10th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Elephant ivory with traces of gilding

Dimensions

Height: 23.2 cm, Width: 13.3 cm, Depth: 0.8 cm, Weight: 0.18 kg

Object history note

From the Farrer sale (Christie's, 12th June 1866, lot 330).
The original setting of the plaque has to remain uncertain, although the prominence given to the Baptist might indicate a connection with a religious foundation dedicated in his name, the most celebrated of these being the Studios monastery and basilica in Constantinople. This was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204 and its most precious objects could well have been brought to the West at that time.

Historical significance: The plaque is a masterpiece of technical virtuosity, but because of the extreme fragility of the leaf work and the thinness of the backgrounds to the roundels, it has suffered significant damage.

Historical context note

The plaque has been stylistically associated with the ivory panels on a casket now in the Bargello in Florence, which also includes half-length figures of St. John the Baptist, Philip, Andrew and Thomas.

Descriptive line

Plaque, ivory, depicting St. John the Baptist and Four Saints, Byzantine (Constantinople), probably late 10th century

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

Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1866. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868., p. 17.
Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, I. p. 41
Cutler, Anthony. A Hand of the Master: Craftmanship, Ivory and Society in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 173-174, 192. fig. 194, 264. n. 18.
Frazer, Margaret. Byzantine Art and the Best. In: The Year 1200. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970. II. pl. 219.
Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. Avori Medievali. Florence: S.P.E.S., 1988. cat. no. 5.
CF. Byzance: L'art Byzantin dans les Collections Publiques Francaises: Musee du Louvre. Paris, 1992. cat. no. 167. Exhibition catalogue of exhibition held Musee du Louvre, 1992-1993.
Williamson, Paul, ed. The Medieval Treasury: the Art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986.
Goldschmidt, A. and Weitzmann, K. Die byzantinischen Elfenbeinskulpturen des X. - XIII. Jahrhunderts, Zweiter Band: Reliefs, Berlin, 1934 (reprinted, Berlin, 1979), p. 17, cat.no. 68, pl. XXVII
Williamson, Paul. Medieval Ivory Carvings. Early Christian to Romanesque. London, V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010, pp. 108-111, cat.no. 24

Production Note

probably late 10th century

Materials

Ivory; Gold

Techniques

Gilding

Subjects depicted

Foliage

Categories

Sculpture; Religion; Christianity

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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