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Relic Procession

The carved ivory piece from the 5th century is a major work of art from Late Antiquity; it shows us a detailed picture of a relic procession and Byzantine court ceremony.

Ivory was greatly in demand as a material from which figures or reliefs were carved because of its rarity, its aura and because it was easy to work.

The relief plate, 5 x 10 in (13 x 26 cm), could have originally served as decoration on a reliquary. It shows a procession moving from left to right. Two priests sit on a splendidly decorated, four-wheeled wagon drawn by two mules, bringing a relic shrine into a city.

The image thus shows a solemn translation of a relic to its new place of destination. Men carrying candles march in front and are then received by an empress. A church, for which the relic is destined, is recognizable behind her. The church was not finished in time; workmen are still putting on the roof.

The background consists of a large building from whose windows numerous men are looking out; they are singing hymns and swinging censers. Even if the structure resembles the Porta Nigra and one might think of the Empress with the small cross as Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who by tradition donated numerous relics to the Trier church, the carved ivory plate likely has no reference to Trier. It was not until the 19th century that the plate came into the Cathedral Treasury from a private collection.

The relief, probably created in Constantinople in the 5th century, is one of the best works of its time, if for no other reasons than the masterly quality of the work by the carver, who sculpted the many figures in high relief and depicted the architecture quite graphically. Furthermore, it is a key document for Byzantine court ceremony and an important source for forms of relic veneration in Late Antiquity because of its meticulous portrayal of gestures and clothing.

Author: Dr. Wolfgang Schmid, Professor