A Byzantine vision of Paradise — The Harbaville Triptych


Harbaville Triptych, mid-10th century, Constantinople, ivory with traces of polychromy, 28.2 x 24.2 x 1.2 cm (Musée du Louvre)  A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

For the classroom

Questions for study or discussion

Thinking about context

  • How was this triptych used?

Thinking about this object

  • What materials and techniques were used to create this triptych?
  • What role do materials and techniques play in the triptych’s appearance?
  • What role do materials and techniques play in the viewer’s experience of the triptych?

Thinking about iconography

  • What does the Deësis scene depict?
  • How do the figures in the Deësis scene relate to each other with their body language?
  • What else is depicted on this triptych?
  • What does this imagery suggest about the triptych’s owner and broader social setting?
  • What role does nature play in the imagery on this triptych?

Thinking about art history

  • How can we understand this triptych against the background of the Iconoclastic Controversy and the broader history of art?

Additional resources

Smarthistory’s free Guide to Byzantine Art e-book
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Harbaville,”]

More Smarthistory images…


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in Louvre, looking at a small, exquisite Byzantine ivory that dates from the mid-10th century.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:12] This is the Middle Byzantine period, soon after the iconophiles won their battle with the iconoclasts.

Dr. Harris: [0:19] From the 700s through to the mid-800s, the Byzantine emperor had instituted a policy of iconoclasm. That is, disallowing images in churches, disallowing religious imagery.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] When this was overturned, artwork flourished throughout the empire.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] This is a period that art historians refer to as the Macedonian Revival.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] We’re looking at a triptych, which is to say, it is a three-paneled ivory. You can see that it’s hinged so that the doors can actually close and protect the interior scene. It’s carved on both the front and the back.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] At the top center, we see a scene that is common during this middle Byzantine period called the Deësis.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, the bearer of God, come to Christ and ask for his protection, for his blessing on behalf of humanity.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] This triptych, then, formed a private devotional object that could be opened, and looking at this top center panel of the Deësis, one could engage in prayer and ask John and Mary for intercession with Christ on their behalf.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] We see Christ seated on an elaborate throne; his right hand is blessing, his left hand holds the Bible. We see his feet on a footrest that appears really quite architectural.

Dr. Harris: [1:32] Above Christ, on either side, we see roundels with figures of angels. What we notice throughout the triptych is that all the figures have inscriptions next to them indicating who they are.

Dr. Zucker: [1:43] I’m struck by just how fine the carving is. Look, for instance, on the right side of Mary’s gown; you can see the fringes clearly and carefully rendered, as well as the folds of the drapery.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] Also in the back of the throne behind Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Extraordinary craftsmanship.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] Now, there are five figures below Christ, and they represent five of the apostles. The center one is St. Peter.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] Who we can see grasping a scroll with his left hand and pointing up to Christ with his right.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] All the figures stand on little platforms.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] The only exception are in the upper registers of the wings, where we see warrior saints who stand on a ground plane. Below them are roundels and then again standing figures. Here we see saints and martyrs.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] The warrior saints seem to have a classical pose to them. They seem to stand in a kind of contrapposto, although the proportions of their bodies are a little bit off, but they do have that sense of leaning to one side, of having their weight borne on one side, of having one knee bent, of their hips a little bit out, a sense of asymmetry to their bodies.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] The ease to their stance, they seem quite relaxed. In fact, despite the formality of the Deësis and of all of the figures, there is a sense of individuality to each figure that is being rendered, which has been achieved only because of the very fine nature of the carving.

[2:56] Let’s go take a look at the back. The back is more shallowly carved. Here we see saints and church fathers.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] We have a symbolic representation of the Garden of Paradise.

Dr. Zucker: [3:05] It’s a marvelous rendering, with lots of detail and a real sense of the vertical, as if the plants themselves on the ground plane are reaching up to heaven.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] Up toward the cross.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] Which is long and elegant and has rosettes not only at the center, but at its four points.

Dr. Harris: [3:19] We have cypress trees with vines encircling them, and grapes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] Leaning in as if the cross itself was almost magnetic.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] A real sense of the beauty and abundance of paradise, of the promise of salvation, of the promise of eternal life. And a sense that from the very cross itself, from Christ’s sacrifice, life blooms.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] Look at the orderliness of the stars in the heavens. There’s a sense of solemnity, a sense of beauty, and a sense of the spiritual in the natural world, which we tend to think of in more modern terms, but here it is in the 10th century.

[3:55] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A Byzantine vision of Paradise — The Harbaville Triptych," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2020, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-byzantine-vision-of-paradise-the-harbaville-triptych/.