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Not currently on display at the V&A

Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes

Consular Diptych
530 (made)
Place of origin

Consular ivory diptychs were produced to mark the appointment of consuls (the highest civil and military magistrates). They consisted of two hinged panels with carved exterior surfaces, typically depicting the consul holding his sceptre, with flanking officials and an inscription. The inside of the ivory leaves could be used for inscribed messages. Consular diptychs were sent by newly appointed consuls to friends and members of the senate to announce their accession to the year-long position. This example of a consular diptych was commissioned by Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes, who was western consul in 530.

Object details

Object type
TitleRufus Gennadius Probus Orestes (generic title)
Materials and techniques
carved elephant ivory
Brief description
Consular diptych of Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes, carved elephant ivory,Rome, 530
Physical description
The consul is represented on both leaves eated on the sella curulis, holding in his right hand the mappa circensis, in his left the scipio (sceptre) with a small personificiation of the Emperor. He is clothed in the standard vestis triumphalis, the toga decorated with squares and roundels of stars. Female figures on either side represent Constantinople and Rome, the former holding an orb with the Greek letter A, probably standing for Anthousa. This was the deonomination for Constantinopolis (Gori 1759, vol. 2, p. 94; Cameron 1982; for a more tentative reading see Olovsdotter 2005, pp. 101-3). The figure of Rome holds a standard with a bust of the Emperor or consul, a variant of the fasces held by personifications of cities in other diptychs (Olovsdotter 2005, pp. 84-85). On a round medallion over the consul's head is his monogram, and above, on tabulae ansatae, the inscription RVF(ii) CENN(adii) PROB(i) Orestis // V(iri) C(larissimi) ET INL(ustris) CONS(ulis) ORD(inarii). This follows the rule of western consular diptychs, where the consul's names are always inscribed on the rear panel and his offices on the front; with eastern diptychs this is reversed. At the top of each leaf are busts of the Ostrogothic king Athalaric (526-34) and his regent mother and queen Amalasuntha within beaded roundels (imagines clipeatae) and flanking a cross; below, two small youthful figures empty sacks of money onto a pile of plates and tablets, the sparsio or largesse expected of the inocming consul.
The faces of both leaves are in good condition apart from the crosses at the top, which have both sustained damage to the right arms. The leaves have been shaved down at the sides, although the remains of the three staggered hinge slots are still visible on the inner sides. The numerous holes (some plugged) drilled through the plaques - nine on the left, twelve on the right - must relate to a later but certainly medieval use, probably when the plaques were mounted, perhaps on a book-cover. This would explain why, unlike many consular diptychs which were subsequently put to liturgical use, the plaques do not appear to have received later inscriptions on the back, either written or incised. The backs were also shaved down, probably at the same time, so that only traces of the original raised borders remain. There are substantial vestiges of a purplish-red staining clearly visible on the front of the lower half of the left leaf, perhaps applied in connection with the later medieval mounting. The ivory of the right leaf appears to be flawed at the centre, with numerous short herring-bone cracks on the surface. This is especially apparent on the cross, the tabula ansata, the roundel with monogram, anround and on the face of the consul, and on the suppedaneum.
  • Height: 34cm
  • Width: 11.6cm
  • Depth: 0.8cm
  • Weight: 1.52kg
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries 2005
Marks and inscriptions
'RVF(II) GENN(ADII) PROB(I) ORESTIS / V(IRI) C(LARISSIMI) INL(USTRIS) CONS(UL) ORD(INARIUS)' (above the consul's head, on labels)
Object history
In the Museum Septalianum in Milan by 1759 (Gori 1759, vol. 2, p. 87). The collection was formed by Manfredo Settala (1600-80), and it is possible that he acquired the diptych in Rome, as there is an accurate copy of the inscription and monogram on an inserted leaf in one of the Windsor albums of the seventeenth-century Roman antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (see Osborne 1991, p. 242, pl. XIX; but see also Osborne and Claridge 1998, where it is instead suggested that Settala sent the drawing to Cassiano dal Pozzo from Milan). In the Trivulzio Collection, Milan, by 1773 (Allegranza 1773, p. 14) and then the Soltykoff Collection, Paris; purchased by John Webb, London, at the Soltykoff sale, Paris, 1861 (Soltykoff 1861, lot 381); purchased from Webb in 1866 (£620).
Rufus Gennadius (sic, despite the use of a C in the inscription) Probus Orestes was western consul in 530. Until the early 1980s, the diptych had been widely accepted as the only surviving sixth-century consular diptych to have been made in Rome, although it had long been recognised that it followed extremely closely that of Clementinus, produced for the consul in Constantinople in 513 (see Gibson 1994, cat. no 8). In 1983, however, Nancy Netzer proposed that the Orestes diptych was in fact a Clementinus diptych, re-carved in the areas of the consul's head, the imagines clipeatae (changing the busts of the Byzantine Emperor and Empress on the Clementinus diptych to Athalaric and Amalasuntha), the tabulae ansatae and the medallions containing the monograms, to convert it for the use of the western consul in Rome (Netzer 1983). Although this hypothesis has been accepted by some, others have rejected it, pointing out that the areas of re-carving identifiied by Netzer might be explained in other ways, such as wear and other changes (Olovsdotter 2005, pp. 32-34 for a summary of thes scholarly positions). It should be pointed out that in the area of the tabulae ansatae there does not appear to be any evidence of cutting-back to a sufficient depth for re-inscribing the diptych, and it is difficult to see how the re-modelling of Athalaric's bust could have been undertaken without reducing the chest and shoulders to a flat plane (Williamson 2010, p. 48). In addition, the Orestes diptych is 3 cm shorter than that of Clementinus. The discs with the monograms do appear to have been shaved, resulting in the partial loss of the border line on the left panel and its total excision on the right, but this might be more to do with a correction of the carver of the diptych than evidence of a previous monogram of Clementinus. Te monogram of Orestes on the right leaf is noticeably off-centre, and there is the possiblity that an earlier, more unsatisfactory, attempt at incising it had been removed.
Netzer rightly pointed out that the head of the consul differs in style from the flanking personifications of Rome and Constantinople, but while this is certainly the case, in itself it is not enough to support a theory of strategic remodelling. The raw material of the right panel appears to be flawed in its central section and gives an impression of coarseness to the carved surface. This, together with natural wear, might give the impression of re-carving (Williamson 2010, p. 48). If, as traditionally supposed, the Orestes diptych was simply based on the form of the Clementinus diptych, then the head of the consul would have been the major feature which the carver of the diptych had to change from the prototype. It is not without interest that the only existing version of the Clementinus diptych was certainly in Rome by the eight century and was probably sent to Italy in 513 (Gibson 1994, pp. 19-22).
A more fundamental objection to the theory of reuse is that it would lead to the presumption that Orestes only issued one diptych, which would fly in the face of accepted consular practice. The likelihood that Orestes would have been able to avail himself of further diptychs of Clementinus for re-carving in order to satisfy the requirements of the office, is of course negligible.
At the same time that Netzer was reinterpreting the Orestes diptych, the traditional dating of the related Basilius diptych, divided between Florence and Milan, was also being challenged. This had previoulsy been allocated to the western consul of that name in 480, but has now been moved on convincing grounds to Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius, a native and resident of Rome but consul in Constantinople in 541 (see Cameron and Schauer 1982). It was proposed that the surviving diptych (albeit fragmentary) was made not in Constantinople but in Rome, and support for this is given by certain features of the Orestes diptych, such as the elongated and simple letters of the inscriptions and the pear-shaped, rudimentary face of Orestes, matched in similar form by the faces of Basilius on his diptych. Rome therefore seems the most likely place of production for the Orestes diptych, although Ravenna has also been suggested (Volbach 1977, pp. 10, 23, 37)
Historical context
Consular diptychs are formed by two ivory panels hinged together. Their outside bears carved decorations while the wax field on the inside was for inscribed messages. Consular diptychs were commissioned by a consul ordinarius to mark his entry to his year-long post,and distributed as a commemorative gift among his supporters.
Subjects depicted
Places depicted
Consular ivory diptychs were produced to mark the appointment of consuls (the highest civil and military magistrates). They consisted of two hinged panels with carved exterior surfaces, typically depicting the consul holding his sceptre, with flanking officials and an inscription. The inside of the ivory leaves could be used for inscribed messages. Consular diptychs were sent by newly appointed consuls to friends and members of the senate to announce their accession to the year-long position. This example of a consular diptych was commissioned by Rufus Gennadius Probus Orestes, who was western consul in 530.

Associated object
Bibliographic references
  • Gori, Antonio Francesco. Theasurus veterum diptychorum consularium et ecclesiasticorum ... Opus Posthumum adcessere Io. Baptistae Passeri Pisaurensis, 3 vols. Florence: Albizzini, 1759, vol. 2, pp. 87-104, pl. XVII
  • Allegranza, M. G. 'De diptycho consulari Cremonensi (1773),' in idem., Opuscula eruditi latini ed italiani. Cremona: Lorenzo Manini, 1781, p. 14
  • Westwood, John Obadiah. 'Diptychs of the Roman Consuls', Proceedings of the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society, New Series 1 1860-64: 125-47 (lecture given in 1862), p. 141
  • Special Exhibition of Works of Art of the Mediaeval, Renaissance, and More Recent Periods, on Loan at the South Kensington Museum. Exhibition Catalogue, London, South Kensington Museum. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for Her Majesty's Stationery Office, and sold by Chapman & Hall, 1862, cat. no 38
  • Piot, Eugène. Le Cabinet de l'Amateur: Années 1861 et 1862. Paris: Libr. F. Didot, 1863, p. 276
  • 'Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1866', in 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. 16
  • Maskell, William. A Description of the Ivories Ancient and Mediaeval in the South Kensington Museum. London: Chapman & Hall 1872, pp. 55-57
  • Westwood, John Obadiah. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum; with an Account of the Continental Collections of Classical and Mediaeval Ivories. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1876, p. 25, cat. nos 69-70
  • Molinier, Étienne de. Histoire générale des arts appliqués à l'industrie du Ve au XVIIIe siècle. Vol. 1: Ivoires. Paris: Librarie Centrale des Beaux Arts, 1896, pp. 32-33, no 34
  • Capps, Edward Jr. 'The Style of the Consular Diptychs', Art Bulletin 10 (1927): 61-101, pp. 68, 80-82, 83, 87, 96, 99-101, fig. 32
  • Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. Part 1: Up to the Thirteenth Century. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1927, pp. 29-30, pl. VII
  • Delbrueck, Richard. Die Consulardiptychen und verwandte Denkmäler. Berlin and Leipzig: W. de Gruyter, 1929, pp. 148-50, cat. no 32
  • Delbrueck, Richard. 'Zu spätrömischen Elfenbeinen des Westreichs', Bonner Jahrbücher 112 (1952): 165-69, p. 188, pl. 36,2
  • Bovini, Giuseppe and Mortara Ottolenghi, Luisa. Avori dell'alto medio evo. Exhibition Catalogue, Ravenna, Museo Nazionale. Faenza: Lega, 1956, cat. no 62
  • Jürgensen, Frank. Die 'Stile und der 'Umkreis' der Maximinianskathedra in Ravenna. Deutungen formaler Sachverhalte an frühchristlich-byzantinischen Elfenbeinschnitzereien. PhD diss., University of Hamburg, 1975, pp. 73-75
  • Volbach, Wolfgang Fritz. Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters, 3rd ed. Mainz am Rhein: Von Zabern, 1976, cat. no 31, plate 16
  • Volbach, Wolfgang Fritz. Avori di scuola ravennate nel V & VI secolo. Ravenna: Longo, 1977, pp. 10, 23, 37
  • Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. Ivoires du Moyen Age. Fribourg: Office du Livre, 1978, p. 28
  • Cameron, Alan and Schauer, Diane. 'The Last Consul: Basilius and his Diptych', Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982): 126-43, pp. 133 (note 56), 135-37
  • Williamson, Paul. An Introduction to Medieval Ivory Carvings. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982, pp. 7, 22-23, pl. 4
  • Netzer, Nancy. 'Redating the Consular Ivory of Orestes', The Burlington Magazine 125 (1983): 265-271
  • Spätantike und frühes Christentum. Exhibition Catalogue, Frankfurt am Main, Liebighaus Museum alter Plastik. Frankfurt am Main: Das Liebieghaus, 1983, cat. no 231
  • Osborne, John. 'A Drawing of a Consular Diptyque of Anastasius (A.D. 517) in the Collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo', Echos du Monde Classique / Classical Reviews 35, n.s. 10 (1991): 237-42, p. 242, pl. XIX
  • Webster, Leslie and Michelle Brown (eds.), The Transformation of the Roman World, AD 400-900. Exhibition Catalogue, London, British Museum: Heirs of Rome: The Shaping of Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, cat. no 56
  • Osborne, John and Claridge, Amanda. The Paper Museum of Cassiano dal Pozzo. Series A - Part II: Early Christian and Medieval Antiquities. Vol. 2: Other Mosaics, Paintings, Sarcophagi and Small Objects. London: Harvey Miller, 1998, p. 188
  • Olovsdotter, Cecilia. The Consular Image: an Iconological Study of the Consular Diptychs. Oxford: John and Erica Hedges Ltd., 2005, pp. 30-34 and passim, pl. 7
  • Ravegnani, Elisabetta. Consoli e dittici consolari nella tarda antichità. Rome: Aracne, 2006, cat. no 14, fig. 14
  • Cutler, Anthony. 'Il linguaggio visivo dei dittici eburnei. Forma, funzione, produzione, ricezione', in Eburnea diptycha: i dittici d'avorio tra Antichità e Medioevo, ed. Massimiliano David. Bari: Edipuglia srl, 2007, pp. 131-61, p. 141, fig. 15
  • Trusted, Majorie (ed.). The Making of Sculpture: The Materials and Techniques of European Sculpture. London: V&A Publications, 2007, p. 116, pl. 207
  • Williamson, Paul. Medieval Ivory Carvings: Early Christian to Romanesque. London: V&A Publishing, 2010, pp. 46-49, cat. no. 6
  • Squizzato, Alessandra and Tasso, Francesca. Gli avori Trivulzio: Arte, studio e collezionismo antiquario a Milano fra XVIII e XX secolo. Padua: Il Poligrafo, 2017, p. 45, fig. 1
  • Pulichene, Nicole Danielle. 'One Whose Name was Writ in Wax:' Reflections on the Medieval Reuse of Consular Diptychs. PhD diss., Harvard University, 2020, pp. 4 (note 15), 32, 37 (note 141), 38, 49 (note 49)
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Record createdNovember 7, 2002
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