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The Boethius Diptych

Mon, 03/11/2014 - 12:05 -- Laura
Brescia, Boethius Diptych, Santa Giulia City Museum

Conceived as a consular diptych to celebrate the election of Marius Manlius Boethius – father to Boethius the philosopher - as Roman consul in 487 AD, this precious artifact underwent a radical transformation through time from its secular use to an ecclesiastical purpose.
The front ivory leaves portray the Roman consul standing motionless on the left; on the right, he is sitting on a cathedra as he presides over the circus games. In both portraits the consul holds a scepter crowned with a flying hawk in his left hand, and in the right he holds the mappa, a linen cloth used to start off the races of quadrigas, a tradition probably introduced by Nero. 
In the right leaf the consul is pictured in the exact moment when he starts off the race, but he is not interacting with a narrative scene, which can only be imagined. This is meant to be a purely representative image, where the consul seems detached from the world (just like a king or a saint), fixed and frozen in sober and simple gestures.

The leaves on the back present two elegant miniatures in the style of Christian religion, the inscription QVOS DEO OFFERIMVS, and the lists of names below it witness that at a later time – in the 7th century, to be precise – the diptych was reused and integrated in the intercessory liturgical prayer, which belongs to the ecclesiastical memorial for benefactors to the Church, either alive or dead.  

Boethius diptych has a long history, which some scholars in the past linked from ancient times to Brescia. More specifically, in memorial lists there were the names of Anatalone and Filastrio, former bishops of Brescia, which provided the evidence to the hypothesis that the Church in Brescia must have been using the diptych in its liturgy for centuries. The fact is that the names are unreadable, since they have been canceled and rewritten before time could erase the ink, therefore the hypothesis is very suggestive but cannot be verified.

Boethius diptych lacks the elegance and complex symbolic pattern of the diptych from Angelo Maria Querini’s collection, showing a poor descriptive skill and limited artistic inspiration from the artisan. The consul figure, in both versions, is clumsy and fixed; the sculptor describes in every least detail the elaborated appearance of the tunic but is unable to instill life in the motionless face, which is large, flat and inexpressive. The surrounding elements (bags, leaves, a patera) are roughly outlined; even the inscription on the frieze is inelegant and far from the classical solemnity of the time. The two miniatures on the Christian side of the diptych show a higher artistic level: the resurrection of Lazarus on the left leaf can be compared – for the stylistic choices and the overall organisation of the scene – with the homologous miniature in the Codice Purpureo from Rossano Calabro (6th century). In the upper section of the right leaf there are the three Doctors of the Western Church, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, depicted according to the influence of the Byzantine canon in a rigidly frontal position, with a fixed gaze and equally rigid gestures.

Boethius diptych originally belonged to the Barbisoni family from Brescia, who inherited it around the 17th century from Sir Lodovico Baitelli, and it was first published in 1717 to be subsequently studied under the aegis of Cardinal Angelo Maria Querini. The task force included scholars from all over Europe, and they discussed the interpretation of the monogram as well as the epigraphic inscription of the front leaves unfortunately without reaching an agreement. Cardinal Querini, who already owned the diptych bearing his name (at the time was called Amatorio) and that of the Lampadii, tried hard to acquire also the diptych of Boethius. He never succeeded just like Giuseppe Bianchini, a learned man and expert antiquary, who in 1757 never managed to convince Giulio Barbisoni to donate the diptych to Pope Benedetto XIV, from whom he apparently received benefits, prelacies and a noble title. Therefore, it was thanks to the wish to keep the family treasures together that Boethius diptych remained in Brescia and never made its way to Rome. It had been passed on to different owners for hereditary reasons until it was donated from Fè noble family to the city of Brescia. The diptych remained in the Queriniana Library until 1882, to be sent later on to the Museo Civico dell’Età Cristiana.

Boethius Diptych
Ivory, 12,6x35 cm
487 AD
now preserved in Santa Giulia City Museum