Height: 7.500 cm
Width: 9.900 cm
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Room 41: Europe AD 300-1100
Panel from an ivory casket: the empty Sepulchre
Late Roman, AD 420-30
Probably made in Rome
The tomb of Christ
This plaque is one of four, which though now separated, must originally have been mounted on the four sides of a small square casket. Each is carved with scenes from Christ’s Passion. The other panels depict Christ carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion and Doubting Thomas.
The central focus of this panel is Christ’s tomb, carefully depicted as a square building with columns at the corners and a brick drum pierced by windows and with a tiled roof. The heavy doors have lion-head door knockers. The panels of the undamaged door have miniature scenes of the raising of Lazarus and a mourning woman, echoing the theme of the larger panel. The doors are ajar, allowing us to see into the deep space of the tomb and the empty sarcophagus.
Two sleeping soldiers flank the sepulchre, their feet resting casually on its base and their bodies slumped against their shields. Their bodies overlap those of two hunched women, Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, each wrapped in a heavy cloak and with her hand raised to her face.
The ivory is superbly carved in very high relief, with the foreshortened shields receding into the background and the knees of the soldiers thrust towards the viewer. The individualized positions of the figures and the dramatic contrast in scale between the figures and buildings bring this conventional scene to life.
K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of spirituality: Late Anti (New York, 1979)
D. Buckton (ed.), Byzantium: treasures of Byzant (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)