Skip to content

THE BEAUTIFUL COPTIC IVORIES OF THE SO-CALLED GRADO CHAIR

November 24, 2017

 In the museums of Europe are scattered almost fourteen carved ivory panels that originate in Alexandria in the seventh century.[1] They once formed a liturgical throne in Alexandria which is believed to have been taken to Italy by Emperor Constantine I (r. 610 – 641) when he reconquered Egypt in AD 629 after the Sassanid Persians occupied it in AD 619.  Heraclius gave it to a church in Grado, a town in Italy, in its northern-east.  Because of that, the liturgical throne came to be known as ‘Grado Chair’.[2] The ivories remained largely forgotten until the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York included some of them in its exhibition “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition Seventh–Ninth Century” in 2012.

These Coptic ivories are extremely beautiful. Their value to the Copts and their history cannot be overestimated. There is nothing else that comes close to it. They depict scenes from the Bible, the Church of Alexandria and some of its saints, including Saint Mark, Anianus and Minas. Two of the ivories show personalities that cannot be clearly identified (number 11 and 13). There is a stress to connect the story of the Gospels, starting from the Annunciation, with the Church of Alexandria through Saint Peter and Saint Mark: here Peter dictates the Gospel to Mark, and Mark goes to Alexandria to preach. In Alexandria, Peter heals Anianus, who converts to Christianity, and consequently Mark baptises him and consecrates him as bishop of Alexandria. Saint Menas is shown as a beardless, young man standing in the orans prayer position,[3] and dressed in a Coptic tunic complete with clavi[4] and orbiculi[5]. The saint wears a thin belt round his waist and has a Roman lacerna worn in the way Roman generals used to wear it, with it being passed through in a ring over the left shoulder. The inclusion of Prophet Joel, one of the twelve minor prophets, here is strange but may be due to his prophesy: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”[6] and its use by Saint Peter in Acts 2:15-21 in his sermon at Pentecost. The artist wanted to stress that the Spirit of God was poured out upon Alexandria.

I could identify thirteen of the fourteen (the fourteenth is only fragmentary and show St. Mark walking in Alexandria while carrying a book), and share them with my readers here without comment. The reader will realise the richness of their art, which also shows much of the civilisation of Egypt in the seventh century before the Arab occupation. I show the ivories in the following order:

  1. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary
  2. The Nativity of Christ
  3. The Wedding at Cana
  4. The Raising of Lazarus

 

  1. Saint Peter Dictating the Gospel to Saint Mark
  2. Saint Mark Preaching
  3. Saint Mark Healing Anianus
  4. Saint Mark Baptising Anianus
  5. Saint Mark Consecrating Anianus

 

  1. Saint Menas with Flanking Camels
  2. Saint in Orans Pose

 

  1. The Prophet Joel
  2. Prophet with a Plague

I1

Figure 1: Annunciation to the Virgin

 

I2

Figure 2: Nativity of Christ

 

 I3

Figure 3: The Wedding at Cana

 

I4

Figure 4: The Raising of Lazarus

 I5.png

Figure 5: Saint Peter Dictating the Gospel to Saint Mark

 

I6

Figure 6: Saint Mark Preaching

 

I7

Figure 7: Saint Mark Healing Anianus

 

I8

Figure 8: Saint Mark Baptising Anianus

 I9

Figure 9: Saint Mark Consecrating Anianus

 I10

 Figure 10: Saint Menas with Flanking Camels

 

I11

Figure 11: Saint in Orans Pose

 

 I12

 Figure 12: The Prophet Joel

 

I13

Figure 13: Prophet with a Plaque

 ___________________________________

[1] For example, “Saint Mark Preaching” and “Saint Menas Flanked by Two Camels” are kept at Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Applicata—Castello Sforzesco, Milan (avori n. 2); “The Prophet Joel” at Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’Art, Paris (AC 864); “Saint in Orant Pose” at Musée National du Moyen Âge, Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, Paris (Cl. 1932). These ivory panels are not large: that of “Saint in Orans Pose”, for example, is 4 1/16 x 3 1/4 x 5/16 in. (10.3 x 8.3 x 0.8 cm) in dimension.

[2] For more on the Grado Chair, see: Kurt Weitzmann, The Ivories of the So-Called Grado Chair (Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1972).

[3] For the orans position, see my article, here.

[4] Singular is ‘clavus’, coloured stripe on tunic.

[5] Singular, ‘orbiculum’, rounded pattern sewn on tunics.

[6] Joel 2:28.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2017 2:36 am

    This is excellent, I see what you mean with regards to st. Mena’s dress. I’ll illustrate him this way in the near future!

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      November 26, 2017 8:16 am

      I look forward to your work. God bless.

Trackbacks

  1. WAS SAINT ANIANUS, THE SECOND CHURCH OF ALEXANDRIA PATRIARCH, SHORT? | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية
  2. THE COPTIC IVORY PYXIS OF SAINT MENAS | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية
  3. WHAT DID THE COPTS CALL A TUNIC? | ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: