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Virgin Hodegetria, St. John the Baptist, and St. Basil from a plaque

Middle Byzantine
Second half of 10th century
16.3 cm x 10.5 cm (6 7/16 in. x 4 1/8 in.)

Not on view


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Full view, obverse
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Three-quarter view left
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Three-quarter view right

from a Triptych

In 1939, Mildred Bliss brought this plaque to Princeton for advice from the most important authority on Byzantine ivory carving at the time, Kurt Weitzmann who, with Adolf Goldschmidt, had published the corpus of Byzantine ivories in 1930 and 1934. He later recalled Mrs. Bliss showing him the piece: When I showed my enthusiasm for this entirely unknown ivory I was courteously reprimanded for having made my judgment too quickly—“It would have taken Dr. Goldschmidt a little longer to make up his mind.”

Weitzmann’s own initial excitement was justified, not just because the piece was previously unknown, but also because of its superior quality—seen in the subtlety of the drapery folds and the noble bearing of the figures—a level of quality suggesting an aristocratic owner, perhaps even an emperor. The piece is a remnant, actually cut from the central plaque of a triptych, as the lower frame indicates. The astragal molding is a separate piece of a kind commonly joined to the central plaque of triptychs to hold the dowels that carry the wings. Weitzmann succeeded in identifying a relief of St. Theodore in the Louvre as one of the wings for the Dumbarton Oaks ivory.

The particular assortment of saints is unique. The Baptist’s gesture of pleading is found in a number of triptychs showing the Deësis (intercession), that is, the enthroned Christ in the center, flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist, and an extended hierarchy of intercessors in just such an attitude. Basil, however, never stands so close to Christ and the Mother of God as he does here. He may appear here by the special request of a buyer who bore his name. Weitzmann suggested that the piece was made for the Emperor Basil II, who reigned from 976 to 1025. Whoever the owners were, both the icon and the Saints served as mediators between them and God.

- J. Hanson

Arts of the Middle Ages; a Loan Exhibition, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, 1940), 41, no. 119, pl. 1.

M. C. Ross, Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 9.4 (1941), 75, fig. 7.

H. Swarzenski, "The Dumbarton Oaks Collection," The Art Bulletin
23 (1941): 77-79, pl. p. 74.

H. Peirce and R. Tyler, "An Ivory of the Xth Century," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 2 (1941): 11-18, pls. 1-2.

R. Shoolman and C. E. Slatkin, The Enjoyment of Art in America, a Survey of the Permanent Collections of Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics & Decorative Arts in American and Canadian Museums: Being an Introduction to the Masterpieces of Art from Prehistoric to Modern Times (Philadelphia, 1942), 224.

Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 10.4 (Dec. 1945): 108.

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 77, no. 156, fig. p. 84.

"Reawakening at Dumbarton Oaks: The Golden Glories of the Byzantine and Early Christian Worlds," Art News 45.10.1 (1946): 15-19; 57-59, esp. 57, fig. XI.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 106, no. 234, fig. p. 126.

Byzantine Art, an European Art, exh. cat., Zappeion Exhibition Hall (Athens, 1964), 144, no. 67.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 81-82, no. 286.

K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 60-65, no. 26, pls. 37-40, colorpl. 6.

A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400 (Publications / Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine Collection 8), (Washington, D.C., 1985), 32, fig. 9, 31.

Byzance: l'art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, exhibition catalogue, Musée du Louvre, 3 November 1992-1 February 1993, (Paris, 1992), 238.

-------, The Hand of the Master: Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (9th-11th Centuries), (Princeton, 1994), 16, 106.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 136, pl. p. 137.

Exhibition History
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, "Arts of the Middle Ages," Feb. 17 - Mar. 24, 1940.

Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum, "A Selection of Ivories, Bronzes, Metalwork and Other Objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, 1945.

Athens, Zappeion Exhibition Hall, "Byzantine Art, an European Art," Ninth Exhibition of the Council of Europe, April 1-June 15, 1964.

Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 22, 1985-Jan. 6. 1986.

Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Collector's Microbe: Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Collections," Apr. 9-Nov. 9, 2008.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Nicolas Landau (1887-1979), Paris (dealer).

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1939-1940.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C., November, 1940.

Basil|St. Basil|Saint Basil | Bead and Reel | Bishops | Gospels | John Chrysostom|St. John Chrysostom|Saint John Chrysostom | John|Saint John|St. John|John the Baptist|St. John the Baptist|Saint John the Ba | Virgin Mary | Virgin Mary|St. Mary|Saint Mary|Virgin|Mary|Hodegetria