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Diptych of Philoxenus

Early Byzantine
525 CE
33.3 cm x 25.6 cm (13 1/8 in. x 10 1/16 in.)

On view


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In the fourth century the aristocratic members of Roman society began to send precious “announcement cards” to friends and colleagues celebrating special events, private and public, like a marriage or a promotion to a higher-ranking office. These announcements were carved on two panels made of ivory, attached to one another by hinges, and decorated with relief carving on the outside. On the inside, each wing had a recessed field that was, in all likelihood, filled with a layer of wax for inscribing messages. Not a single original text has been preserved and it is still debated as to what information—if any at all—these tablets delivered. These ivory diptychs are the luxury version of the commonly used wooden writing tablets that served as notepads in ancient times.

This diptych, with an elegant geometrical and floral decoration, belongs to the group known as consular diptychs, panels that were carved and sent to announce the appointment of a consul—the highest office in the Roman Republic that had become honorary during the Empire—and to declare the start of the consul’s term at beginning of the New Year, which was celebrated with several days of ceremonies and public entertainment (ludi consulares).

Within a framed octagon inside the lozenge, a Latin inscription refers to the consul in Constantinople in the year 525: “Flavius Theodorus Filoxenus, son of Sotericus Filoxenus, with the rank of illustris, domestic count, formerly master in Thrace, and ordinary consul.”

Four circles in the corners bear a dedicatory inscription, also written in incised majuscules, but this time in Greek, stating, “While holding office as consul, I, Philoxenus, offer this gift to one who takes pride in his way of life.”

Two other diptychs of Philoxenus, preserved in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, differ in design, indicating that the same person might issue a variety of diptych types. Presumably, they were distributed in accord with the different status of the addressees.
G. Bühl

Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum (Berlin, 1828-1877), no. 8120.

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A. Goldschmidt, Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der Zeit der karolingischen und sächsischen Kaiser VIII.-XI. Jahrhundert ( Denkmäler der deutschen Kunst: 2. Sektion, Plastik ; 4. Abteilung), (Berlin, 1914), 78-79, no. 160a-b, fig. 35.

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The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 77, no. 155, fig. p. 83.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 105, no. 229, fig. p. 116.

Walters Art Gallery, The History of Bookbinding, 525-1950 A.D., exh. cat., Baltimore Museum of Art, Nov. 12, 1957-Jan. 12, 1958, (Baltimore, 1957), 1, 2, no. 1, pl. 1.1.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 79, no. 278.

W. Gersthofen, "Wachs als Beschreib- und Siegelstoff. Wachsschreibtafeln und ihre Verwendung," in Vom Wachs; Hoechster Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Wachse 1.9 (Frankfurt, 1968), 793, esp. n. 1525, figs. 597-598.

K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 28-29, no. 17, pl. 14-15.

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), 13, figs. 13, 14.

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Exhibition History
Worcester, Mass., Worcester Art Museum, "Art of the Dark Ages," Feb. 19 - Mar. 29, 1937.

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

Baltimore, Baltimore Museum of Art, "History of Bookbinding 525-1950 A.D.," Nov. 12, 1957 - Jan. 12, 1958.

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

Acquisition History
Trivulzio Collection, Milan.

Purchased from Stora (dealer), New York, July, 1935, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss.

Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1935-1940.

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

Dedicatory | Latin | Laurel Wreaths | Lotus Palmettes | Lozenges | Majuscule | Octagonal | Ovals | Spandrels | Vine Leaf|Vine Leaves