The mantle informally slung over the muscular youth’s left arm seems to emphasize his nudity, even though the helmet suggests preparedness for battle. The figurine thus takes part in the classical tradition of the heroic nude. For the ancient Greeks, it was not just the face, but the strength and fine proportions of the whole body that conveyed the virtue of the person depicted. Gods, rulers, and athletes were all frequently depicted nude.
We cannot be sure of the identity of the figure. The helmet suggests that he may be Ares, the Greek god of war, whom the Romans identified with Mars, their god of war, but he could equally be a mortal warrior. In either case, his relaxed pose and upward glance suggest that he is away from the battle, and taken up in contemplation.
The carver has expertly exploited the properties of elephant ivory. The warm color, for example, reinforces the impression of living flesh. The original block seems to have been very thin, no more than half an inch in depth, yet the artisan has found ways to create the illusion of a figure in space. The exaggerated muscles at the waist indicate the round forms of the back, as if in three-quarters view. The grain of the ivory itself works almost like a contour map, emphasizing the bulging of the flesh and creating a convincing depiction of a figure in space.
H. Peirce and R. Tyler, L'Art Byzantin (Paris, 1932-34), 61, pl. 76a,c.
M. C. Ross, "The Collection," Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 9.4 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (1941): 69-81, esp. 70.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 76, no. 150.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 103, no. 223, pl. p. 112.
J. Beckwith, Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300, Chapters in Art 37 (London, 1963), 11, fig. 17.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 77, no. 270.
K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 18, no. 8, pl. XI.
A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 8 (Washington, D.C., 1985), 8-9, 40-41, fig. 12, 39, 40.
C. L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories, (Princeton, 1998), 86, no. 55.
E. Gagetti, Preziose Sculture di Età Ellenistica e Romana, Il Filarete 240 (Milano, 2006), 326-27, no. G11.
Cambridge, Fogg Museum, "A Selection of Ivories, Bronzes, Metalwork, and Other Objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collections," November 15 - December 31, 1945.
Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," October 24, 1985 - January 26, 1986.
Dikran Kelekian (1867–1951), Paris and New York, by 1931 (Exposition d’art byzantin [Paris, 1931], no. 11).
Purchased from Kelekian by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, June 1938.
Transferred to Harvard University, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC, November 1940.