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Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist

early 9th century
Made in Aachen, Germany
Elephant ivory
Overall: 7 3/16 x 3 11/16 x 1/4 in. (18.3 x 9.4 x 0.7 cm)
Credit Line:
The Cloisters Collection, 1977
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Until 1977, when it appeared at a London auction, this ivory from the Carolingian "Renaissance" was unknown. Carved in high relief, the frontally enthroned Evangelist displays his Gospel with the opening phrase IN PRINCI / PIO ERAT / VERBVM ("In the beginning was the Word" [John 1:1]). The arch, with its rich acanthus decoration, is supported by elaborate columns and encloses John's symbol, the eagle, which is directly above him. The entire composition is framed by a simple inscribed border. The text of this inscription is based on a line from the "Carmen Paschale," a poem by the fifth-century Christian writer Sedulius.

    Among the remarkable features of this ivory are John's loose, classical pallium and mantle, whose calligraphic treatment and plasticity verge on pure fantasy. This tendency toward a sumptuous ornamental effect, in which the abundant drapery patterns and textures take on a life of their own, becomes a characteristic of several ivories of the Court School of Charlemagne (r. 768–814).

    Artistically, these ivories are very close to the manuscripts produced in Aachen for the court of Charlemagne; this resemblance suggests that they probably were carved there. Some scholars have maintained that some of these ivories may date into the reign of his successor, Louis the Pious (814–840).

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: [on pages of open codex, in Carolingian majuscules]
    IN PRINCI / PIO ERAT / VERBVM (In the beginning was the Word [John 1:1])

    [across top of plaque]
    MOREVLANSAQVILEVERBUM PETITASTRA [JOANNES?] (more volans aquile verbo petit astra Joannes) (By means of the flying eagle, St. John through the world reaches the heavens [Sedulius])

  • Provenance

    C. Cain , London (sold 1977) ; [ Sotheby's, London (December 15, 1977, no. 23)]

  • See also