Unexpected Meetings #4: The Maskell Ivory

The fourth in a series of blog posts inspired by the juxtaposition of objects in the Ashmolean exhibition Imagining the Divine, which closes on February 18th 2018. Here, Prof. Jaś Elsner considers two juxtaposed figures within one object, an ivory plaque from a late Roman ivory casket.

Two men hanging from trees.  To the left Judas, his pile of silver scattered at his feet. To the right, Jesus crucified – perhaps the oldest image of the crucifixion that survives (apart from a few inscribed gems). Judas is clothed, dead, alone in his suicide. Jesus is near-naked but for a loin cloth, triumphantly alive in the moment of the humiliation that would be his victory, profoundly social – with two attendants (Joseph of Arimathea or St John and the Virgin Mary?) and the soldier Longinus piercing his flesh with a now lost lance. Jesus has a halo and the inscription REX IUD, Latin for ‘King of the Jews’, while Judas has nothing but his rope. Jesus is on the wood of a tree that was cut down and reused, Judas on a living tree (even if its middle section has been restored!).  

maskell ivory
Ivory plaque, BM 1856,0623.5. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

They appear on an ivory plaque, once a side of a casket, carved in Rome in the early fifth century, now in the British Museum. How audacious to put them together in one scene – not a scene that ever occurs in the Bible (although both stories are told there) and in deliberate avoidance of other stories that might be told (of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, for instance). It’s exquisitely carved, undercut, very detailed and refined.  Come and tell us what you think.

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