Every time I see this panel of carved elephant ivory, I’m freshly stunned at the quality of the workmanship and I feel the need to remind myself that I’m looking at a piece from the late 4th or early 5th century AD and not a Pre-Raphaelite extravaganza that took a detour through the Arts & Crafts Movement’s basement.
The piece, one of the leaves of a diptych, shows a priestess and a young child performing a rite – possibly relating to the god Dionysus. The inscription along the top ‘SYMMACHORUM’ refers to the aristocratic Roman Symmachi family, while the other panel (now in the Musée de la Moyen Age, Paris) mentions the Nicomachi family and depicts a similar priestess. While there are a number of theories as to why this diptych was carved, the most plausible (to me, at least) is that it was commissioned to celebrate and commemorate a wedding (either in 393/4 AD or 401 AD) between members of these two powerful families.
Given their neo-Pagan theme, it is surprising, if not a little ironic, that they appear to owe their preservation to the fact that they were incorporated into a christian reliquary during the 13th century at the abbey of Montier-en-Der in France. The reliquary seems to have been broken up at the time of the French Revolution and while this panel entered a private collection and was cared for, the Nicomachi panel was discovered, heavily damaged in a well in Montier. To me the tale illustrates how fine is the thread that the fates of such beautiful and precious objects may hang by and how easily they may be lost forever. By the same token, we should really take the time to appreciate the masterpieces like this that do survive and feel incredibly lucky indeed.