The Boethius Diptych

New Findings in Technical Art History, Iconography, and Paleography

Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The Roman consul Boethius commissioned ivory diptychs as gifts for his supporters on the occasion of his inauguration in 487 CE. One of them has survived. It shows the enthroned and standing consul in relief in his official clothes. It is preserved in the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia.

Museum of Santa Giulia, Southwest CloisterZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Museo di Santa Giulia

The Benedictine Monastery of San Salvatore – Santa Giulia has housed the Museum of the City of Brescia since 1998.

San Salvatore-Santa Giulia, Brescia, InteriorZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Founded around the middle of the 8th century by the last Longobard king Desiderius and his wife Ansa, the monastery had a great religious, political and economic significance for Brescia and the region until the 18th century.

Roman Diptychs in the Museo di Santa GiuliaZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The museum preserves three extraordinary late antique diptychs, that of the Lampadii (396 CE), that of Boethius, and the so-called Querini diptych, also from the 5th century.

The Boethius Diptych

The Boethius Diptych was adapted for the liturgy of the Western church in the 7th century. Therefore paintings and memorial inscriptions were added on the interior surfaces.  

Boethius Diptych, Interior Sides (487 / 7th and 8th century)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Since the 18th century, scholars have studied the diptych and its medieval inscriptions and images. Nevertheless, the diptych was never the subject of a technical art historical study until 2019.

The Members of the Boethius Diptych Research ProjektZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The Research Project

In 2019 and 2020 a team of conservators and art historians examined the diptych for the first time with the support of the curator in charge, Francesca Morandini. Only non-invasive methods were used.

Methods

In addition to a microscopic examination, the diptych was photographed in high-resolution and investigated with visible light, ultraviolet fluorescence and infrared reflectography. The carved reliefs, the paintings and the super-imposed layers of inscriptions were examined. With the help of image analysis, nearly unrecognizable details of the inscriptions were made visible.

The Exterior Sides of the Diptych

The diptych shows the consul Boethius standing and sitting, in an ornate toga, opening the games on the occasion of his inauguration as a Roman consul.

Boethius Diptych, Exterior Sides (487)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

To do this, he raises his right hand with a cloth (mappa).

In his left hand he holds a scepter with an eagle.

There are sacks of money at his feet to be given away.

Dimensions (2019)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The diptych is made of ivory.

Its size corresponds to the average size of consular diptychs.

Position of Plaques in the Tusk of an Elephant (2021)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Ivory as a Material

The plaques were probably cut from the same elephant tusk. The precious ivory was used as efficiently as possible.

This is visible on the slightly concave outer edges and the reduced corners of the plaques, as well as the partly preserved tip of the pulp cavity.

Boethius Diptych, Exterior Sides, Lower Part, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Pulp Cavity, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Boethius Diptych, Exterior Side In Transmitted Light (487)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The panels have a maximum thickness of 10 mm. Relief carving thinned some areas down to 2 mm so that they appear translucent in transmitted light.

Engraved Inscription, Detail, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Different Tool Marks, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Different Shaped Carving Tools and Their Marks (2021)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The marks of variously shaped carving tools are visible on the diptych, even though many traces of the manufacturing process probably disappeared during the final smoothening and polishing.

Schematic Reconstruction of the Work Process That Can Have Produced the Marks in Form of a Ladder (487)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

On the diptych ― as on other antique ivory objects ― ladder-like traces are visible on the interior surfaces. There are various theories as to which tool may have caused them.

Tool Mark in Form of a Ladder, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Tool Marks in Form of a Ladder, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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The Hinges

The two ivory panels are connected by a three-part hinge system. Each hinge is made of metal and the pin consists of ivory.

Three-Part Hinge, 2021, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Upper Hinge, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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The Hinge of the Boethius Diptych in Cross section (opened and closed), 2020, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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The Clasp

Parts of what must have been the original clasp are visible on the outer edges. One metal knob is still preserved, while on the other panel only a hole reminds of its lost counterpart.

Clasp, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Hole From Lost Clasp, 487, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Traces of Polychromy: White Residues in the Consul’s EyesZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Polychromy

As on other diptychs, traces of paint are preserved in recesses of the carved surface, but they cannot be dated. The former practice of making cast replicas probably further reduced the remains of paint. 

Boethius Diptych, Interior Sides (487 / 7th and 8th century)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

The Interior Sides of the Diptych

Consular diptychs have recessed areas on the interior surfaces that may have originally been filled with wax for writing.

In the Middle Ages, these recessed areas were often written on. This diptych is unique because it also shows paintings on the interior surfaces.

The Raising of Lazarus (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

On the left plaque, the Raising of Lazarus by Christ is depicted, as reported in the New Testament by the evangelist John (John 11:1-45).

Christ stretches out his arm and speaks the words “Lazarus come out” (John 11:43).

Lazarus, wrapped in a shroud, stands in his sarcophagus. The miracle of his raising from death has taken place.

Mary, Lazarus’ sister, has thrown herself on the ground before Christ in gratitude.

The man who grasps the coffin lid holds his nose, because Lazarus – four days after his burial – stinks of decay, as the evangelist reports.

One of the two men next to the mausoleum has his hand stretched out expectantly in the direction of Christ. Previous depictions of this scene lack any figures in this position. Could they represent the patrons of the paintings?

The picture is an expression of the Christian hope for the resurrection after death.

Three Church Fathers Jerome, Augustine and Gregory (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Opposite, on the right plaque, we see the half-length figures of three Church Father in frontal views.

The image shows the Church fathers Jerome (347-420)

Augustine (354-430)

and Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).

This depiction is considered the earliest portrait of this pope.

It is also the first representation of these Church Fathers together.

Painting Technique

The following imaging techniques were used to examine the painting technique:

Mary (Sister of Lazarus), Photography with Visible Light (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

High resolution photography

Mary (Sister of Lazarus), Digital Image AnalysisZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Digital image analysis

Mary (Sister of Lazarus), Infrared ReflectographyZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Infrared reflectography

Mary (Sister of Lazarus), Visible Induced Luminescence photographyZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Visible induced luminescence (VIL) photography 

Mary (Sister of Lazarus), Photography with Visible Light (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

High resolution photography

Lines incised in the ivory were used to define the contours of the painted frames.
The image was laid out in a detailed underdrawing with brushstrokes in an orange tone.

Three Church Fathers Jerome, Augustine and Gregory (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Mapping of the Undrawings in the Painting of the Church Fathers (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Underdrawing

Gilding

A white preparation layer was partially applied for the gilding.
Later on, another layer of gold was applied over the remains of the original gilding.

Traces of Gilding on the Chiton of Christ (yellow arrow), 7th century, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Traces of the original gilding (yellow arrows) and the later re-gilding (blue arrows), 7th century and later, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Pigments

The backgrounds were painted with a bright blue, coarse-grained pigment.
This could be identified as Egyptian blue on the base of VIL images. Due to its aged condition, accumulated dirt and later varnishes, the blue paint layer appears less brilliant today than the reconstruction of the paint layer. In lacunae, the original brilliancy of the blue color can still be seen on the original.

Blue Background in the Painting of the Church Fathers (7th century), From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Blue Background with Original Color visible on the Edges of a Lacuna (7th century), From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Reconstruction of the Blue Background, 2020, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Overpainting

In a later phase of reworking, black contour lines were added to the paintings. This occurred at the same time as the overgilding and served to accentuate outlines and details.

The Raising of Lazarus (7th century and later), From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Reconstruction

On the basis of the microscopic examination and photographs from the beginning of the 20th century, the original appearance of the paintings could be approximately reconstructed with digital inpainting.

Three Church Fathers Jerome, Augustine and Gregory (7th century and later)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Digital Reconstruction of the Painting of the Three Church Fathers (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Original painting

Digital Reconstruction of the Painting of the Three Church Fathers (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

During the only phase of reworking, a new gilding and black contours were added.

Comparison between Eastern and Western Panel Paintings of the 7th centuryZentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Painting Traditions in Comparison

The comparison with contemporary panel paintings of Greek origin (see ISIMAT) shows clear differences in style, technique and the type of the saint.

Boethius Diptych, Interior Sides (487 / 7th and 8th century)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Inscriptions

The fragmentarily preserved inscriptions located under the paintings are severely abraded and partly they are no longer legible.

Detail of the Word "missarum", From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Different phases of the inscriptions could be distinguished with the help of image analysis, allowing most of the inscriptions to be deciphered and dated. This made it possible to draw conclusions about the cultural origin of the persons whose names are mentioned.

Boethius Diptych, Detail, Stitched Macro Image, VIS, 2020, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Boethius Diptych, Detail, Stitched Macro Image, Image Analysis., 2020, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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The First Phase (7th Century)

The inscriptions were probably added at the same time as the paintings. First, the titulus QVOS DEO OFFERIMUS (“we recommend to God”) was written and the plaques were divided into two columns.

Reconstruction of the Beginning of the First Phase of the Inscriptions (7th century) (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Names of the three represented church fathers

Reconstruction of the First Phase of the Inscriptions (7th century) (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Latin and Greek family names follow.

These are the names of deceased persons.

The Second Phase (Middle of the 8th Century)

Later, the names and the central vertical divisions were removed so the plaques could be newly inscribed.

Reconstruction of the Second Phase of the Inscriptions (8th century) (2020)Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte

Memento

Remember, Lord, the soul of all
orthodox bishops
and all Christians, especially
those of us who have been commended (to you) in the Mass.
That is:
(??) Atto Priest

Names of the living:

three from Greek-Roman tradition,
one medieval name form,
two Germanic-Lombard
and five Anglo-Saxon names,
among them four female names.
The last-mentioned group could be
a group of pilgrims.

The Publication

The publication of the research results appeared in the Klinger Verlag and can be purchased in bookshops or ordered from the publisher (kontakt@klinger-verlag.de).

Publication 2021, From the collection of: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte
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Credits: Story

Project Partner
Fondazione Brescia Musei, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia
Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, München
 
Research Team
Dr. Catharina Blänsdorf, Archäologische Staatssammlung, München
Ronja Emmerich, M. A., Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung, München
Elisabeth Fugmann, M. A., vorarlberg museum, Bregenz
Christian Kaiser, M. A., Fraunhofer-Institut für Bauphysik IBP, Holzkirchen
Dr. Francesca Morandini,  Fondazione Brescia Musei, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia
Nicole Pulichene, PhD, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Dr. Esther Wipfler, Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in München, Forschungsstelle Realienkunde

Collaborators
Dr. Giulia Ammannati and Dr. Ilaria Morresi, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa
Animation: Christoph Stählin, Archäologische Staatssammlung, München

Support and Sponsoring
CONIVNCTA FLORESCIT, Munich
Deutsches Museum, Munich
Lehrstuhl für Restaurierung Kunsttechnologie und Konservierungswissenschaft der Technischen Universität München
Archäologische Staatssammlung München

Credits: All media
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