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Athos Holy Mount

Byzantine Minor Arts
9.15 Bema door
10th c., 2nd half
Ivory, inlaid and pegged to wood, bone (?)
135 x 75 x 3 cm
Constantinople (?)


The Original New Testament

The two wooden leaves forming this bema door are a marvellous example of inlay work combined with appliquι ivory, a technique used to ornament diverse items of ecclesiastical furniture, including episcopal thrones. Although the edges of both leaves are damaged and have lost part of their decoration, their splendour remains undiminished. The door forms an arch, whose curved top was ornamented with radial knobs, of which only one remains in place. Both leaves are decorated over their entire surface with ivory inlays, triangular or romboid, their center accentuated by inlaid thin bands and by rectangular and semi-circular carved plates pegged to the wooden surface. Each door is divided in four panels with a figurative subject in the middle, from which, unfortunately, only one, depicting St John Chrysostom has survived (second from the top on the left door). These panels are framed by rectangular bands, decorated with undulating rinceau, vine shoots, rosettes within circles, incised circlets, and an interlinking pattern of horns of plenty.

The frame of the middle panels is further enriched by four semi-circular or rectangular tiles, ornamented with rosettes, which form a cross. A rosetted band once finished the arched tops of the doors, but of this only a small section - on the left leaf - has survived; this border must have continued down the inner edges, as it does in a similarly decorated bema door in the Monastery of Chelandari (Han 1956, pp. 5ff.). The panels on each leaf have a triple framing and are paved with inlaid tiles in one of three different geometric patterns. The middle of the three bands framing the panels is obviously inspired by a catenulate ornament.

Studies have suggested (Pelekanidis 1977, pp. 222-3) that the upper two panels were decorated with the Annunciation (Gabriel on the left, the Virgin on the right), while the four central panels bore figures of hierarchs, of which all but one have been lost. The bema doors in many post-Byzantine iconostases display this iconographic scheme. The two lower panels must have been decorated with purely ornamental motifs, of which certain traces still remain: a pair of horns of plenty framing fruit, and a bird pecking at what is probably fruits.

The rosetted bands, the dominant ornamental border motif, belong to the same type of archaicising motifs found on tenth- and eleventh-century marble lintels, and on ivories such as the famous rosette caskets. In fact, in the type and alternation of their rosettes, they very closely resemble the Verolli casket and others of the same group (Goldschmidt - Weitzmann 1930, nos. 21, 30, 33). The motif of the undulating rinceau is also found on bands decorating late tenth-century ivory caskets (Walters Art Gallery 1947, no. 123, p. 44). The ornament described as an interlinking pattern of horns of plenty (Pelekanidis 1977, pp. 230-1) also belongs to the same period, as does the small icon of St John Chrysostom, which is very closely related to a group of contemporary ivory tablets, including that of Constantine VI Porphyrogennitos, in Moscow (Pelekanidis 1961, p. 62).

Finally, there are similarities between the paving of the panels on this bema door and those covering the background of the revetments on eleventh-century icons, such as the Novgorod icon with Sts Peter and Paul, which has been dated to about 1050, which would seem to indicate that the artists found their inspiration in a common source.

The Monastery of Chelandari has a bema door similarly decorated, but less well preserved (Han 1956, pp. 5-20). The marked similarity in the decoration of these two gates, both in technique and in subject matter, suggest that both were made in the same workshop in Constantinople sometime in the second half of the tenth century.

Bibliography: Pelekanidis 1961, pp. 50-67. Bogdanovic - Djuric - Medakovic 1978, p. 58.

K. L-T.
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10th century

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