Length: 2.450 m
Height: 92.000 cm
Thickness: 8.000 cm
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Marble transenna with eagles and hares
Byzantine, 10th century
Probably from Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey)
The triumph of Good over Evil?
A transenna is a large slab that formed part of a marble screen in an Orthodox church. The length of this example suggests it may have come from the gallery level of a church.
The grey marble is carved in relief with three large eagles. The central eagle is shown frontally. Its head is turned to the side and its legs are spread over a long looped snake which has an animal-like ear and snout. Flanking the central eagle are two eagles in profile, their talons sunk into the backs of crouched hares. Thick-stems with ivy-like leaves sprout from the ground and a segmented tree or vine with spade leaves and palmette tendrils appear on the far left. Although deeply carved, the surfaces are flat and the figures have no sense of volume, although the surface details of the wings and feathers are elaborately carved.
The motifs of the eagle/snake and eagle/hare appear frequently on Middle Byzantine sculpture, derived ultimately from Near Eastern images. Both eagles and snakes were positive solar images in, for example, the mythology of the Parthian period. However, the combination of predator and prey probably had a quite different significance here. Although the symbolism is not clear to us, they may represent the triumph of good over evil.
D. Buckton (ed.), Byzantium: treasures of Byzant (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)