Elevation of Symmachus ivory

Type: Diptychs
Date: ca. 402
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Italy
Medium: Ivory
Dimensions: 30.1 × 11.4 cm ; 1 cm thick
Description: This panel shows three scenes of a pagan aristocrat being carried up to heaven. At the bottom, a team of elephants escort the toga-clad man in a carriage. In the center, two eagles—symbols of the soul—fly from a funeral pyre surmounted by a quadriga. At the top, the same man is borne by two wind personifications into the presence of his distinguished ancestors, past a zodiac band and the sun god in the upper right corner.

The monogram at the top says "Symmachorum," identifying the dead aristocrat as a member of a prominent Roman family, the Symmachi. Based on the style, this ivory was carved for the funeral of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (d. 402), a prominent statesman who maintained his family's tradition of polytheism. After Emperor Gratian removed the pagan altar of Victory from the Roman Senate building and cut public funding for pagan ceremonies, Symmachus petitioned him to tolerate "the religious institutions that had served the State well for so long." The ivory shows the Symmachi's investment in traditional religion.

The object is sometimes called the Gherardesca Diptych, named for its Florentine owner before it was acquired by the British Museum. The other half of the original diptych is lost. It may have portrayed the elevation to heaven (apotheosis) of another family member, signaled by the second eagle. This may have been Flavianus Nicomachus, who also died in 402 and whose family is paired with the Symmachi in another contemporary diptych.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 2
Image Credits: © The Trustees of the British Museum

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