42 Historical Objects, No. 16: The Harbaville Triptych.

harbaville triptych

This object is one of the most fabulous treasures of Byzantine art that has survived into the modern world. The Harbaville Triptych is a devotional display with three panels, a central one with two hinged side panels, made of carved ivory. The bas-relief figures depict Christ, John the Baptist and other saints. Originally the figures were painted and in fact flecks of paint can still be seen on them (though they don’t show up in photos, generally). This probably dates from the middle of the 10th century or perhaps the 11th.

The Harbaville Triptych is an object that embodies the fusion of the religious and the political, which was basically the definition of the Byzantine world. Byzantium was not technically a theocracy but it may as well have been, and this ivory panel was almost certainly carved in a monastery art studio closely associated with the imperial court. Day in and day out these craftsmen labored to create stunning works of art–carvings sometimes, but usually icon paintings–to supply the Emperor’s household and the official church at Hagia Sofia and other houses of worship subsidized by the state. The person(s) who carved this was probably a monk who apprenticed for years under a venerable old master. Sadly, his name–it was certainly a male–has been lost to history. Too bad, because his work is absolutely breathtaking.

Although the Harbaville Triptych dates from a later period, this exact system of royal art patronage is described in my book Zombies of Byzantium, which takes place in 717 CE. The system continued right up until the end of the empire in 1453. We think the Harbaville Triptych is from a later period because it’s very similar to some other ivory carvings that have also survived, one of which depicts Christ crowning a Byzantine Emperor who is believed to be Romanus IV Diogenes. He was crowned in 1068 and famously lost the Battle of Manzikert, the most epic military disaster the Byzantines suffered until the Fourth Crusade. If the Harbaville piece is dated similarly, it comes to us from the most troubled age of Byzantine history, as the Empire struggled for its survival both against the Seljuk Turks and from internal political convulsions and intrigues that threatened to destroy the country.

The Harbaville Triptych is currently in the Louvre in Paris. It may have been brought back to Western Europe as war booty after the Fourth Crusade–as many Byzantine art treasures were–but I just don’t know.

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