Volume 8, issue 1 (summer-fall 2000)
A warrior with a 'Danish axe'
in a Byzantine ivory panel
by Peter Beatson *
The Schnütgen Museum in the Romanesque
church of St. Cäcilien houses the religious treasures of
Cologne.1 It contains a small selection of Byzantine
arts, including an ivory plaque dated to the tenth or eleventh
century (Figure 1):
Figure 1. Ivory plaque, Byzantine 10-11th
centuries. Schnütgen Museum, Cologne (inv. no. B-6). Actual
size about 5 cm. Photo credit: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln.
With thanks to the Schnütgen Museum.
The flat panel once decorated an object such as a casket,
fastened by six pegs for which holes remain. The sturdy figure of a
warrior, holding an axe and a sword, fills and partly intrudes onto
the frame. A short inscription appears in the upper left corner,
but is unfortunately illegible, even identifying it as Greek or
Latin seems impossible.
Though the semi-nude warrior seems inspired by an Antique model
like so many similar ivories of the late tenth century, the
armaments are contemporary to the creation of the piece. Most
interestingly, they are alien to the eastern Mediterranean area.
With its broad blade and man-high handle, the axe is very similar
to a Scandinavian style of the late Viking age, the so-called
'Dane-axe' most familiarly rendered in the hands of Anglo-Saxon
huscarls on the Bayeux 'Tapestry' - Petersen's Type M.2 The
sword is also of interest, with its short plain cross and heavy
semicircular pommel (Petersen Type X)3, it is typical
of widespread northwestern European styles around 1000 AD.
Could a Constantinopolitan artist of this time have seen such a
foreigner, and copied his distinctive weapons, and if so, why?
Under treaties with the Kievan state dating as early as 911 AD4,
Russian troops were allowed to enter the Byzantine army, and their
presence is attested in strategic manuals after the mid-tenth
century.5 The professional troops of the Princes of Kiev
at this time were largely Scandinavian (in Rus' they were known as
Varangians). By the later eleventh century at least, the Varangians
in Byzantium had become well known for their heavy iron axes (a
common appellation was Greek pelekophori, 'axe-bearers').6
A large Russian force was stationed around Constantinople while
Basil II was preparing to counter the rebel Bardas Phokas in
988-989 AD. Given that the Rus' had besieged the capital itself
twice,7 and their last raids into the Empire had
occurred just less than twenty years before, their armed presence
may have been of great interest and not a little apprehension to
The figure appears to be bare-chested, but lack of dress is not
unusual among warrior ivories of this general type, so this factor
need not be considered to bear on the possibilities outlined above.
He wears loose drawers or possibly a 'kilt' gathered around the
waist - underwear such as this is rarely depicted but may best be
seen in images of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastea, such as an ivory
icon held in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin.9 His thighs and
knees are possibly also bare, his shins and feet clad in either
puttees plus shoes, or high boots.
In many ways Byzantine art was consciously backward looking,
with a cultivated taste for ancient Hellenic and Roman styles.
Warriors in Byzantine ivories are usually descended from two sets
of Late Antique models - the Biblical story of Joshua, or the
mythological war of Dionysus with India.10 These
(especially the latter) can contain representations of naked or
semi-naked warriors, but they normally wear only a chlamys
(cloak), not pants or drawers, so the exact inspiration for this
plaque remains obscure. In the conservative milieu of the
metropolitan workshops artists drew on earlier archetypes, not
current fashions.11 The 'bare chest' might therefore be a muscled
cuirass in the Antique fashion, with a fancy petaled border at the
waist, worn over a tunic with a flaring skirt.12 There are,
however, no trace of markings at the neck, or at the shoulder or
wrist to indicate upper body armour or clothing, though it might be
that such extra details were painted in, as most, if not all,
ivories were originally brightly coloured.13
There remains a possibility that the ivory
itself was produced in the West, that is, by a carver of one of the
Ottonian (Holy Roman Empire) schools. Can this piece be accepted as
Byzantine? The clumsy posture, blocky musculature, and
ill-proportioned limbs distinguish this plaque from the finest
Byzantine ivories of the so-called "Macedonian Renaissance", but
may be recognised in other works, such as an icon of the Nativity
in the British Museum,14 which also matches in the
style in which the hair is rendered. Though the background is
deeply cut, the figure is flatly modeled, this has been noted in
some other casket panels of the period.15
Post Box 3003 Marrickville NSW 2204, Australia. Email -
Cäcilienstraße 29, D-50667 Köln (Cologne) Germany.
J. Petersen, De norske vikingesværd, Kristiania
Anon., Russian primary chronicle, translated S.H.
Cross and O.P. Sherbowitz-Taylor, The Russian primary
chronicle: Laurentian text, Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy
of America, 1973, p. 68.
For example, Anonymous book on tactics (De re
militari), c. 995 AD, text and translation in: G.T. Dennis,
Three Byzantine military treatises. Corpus fontium
historiae Byzantinae, vol. 25, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks,
For example, Nikephoros Bryennios (late 11th c.),
History, text and translation of P. Gautier,
Nicéphore Bryennios: Histoire, Corpus fontium
historiae Byzantinae, vol. 9, Brussels: Byzantion, 1975, p. 216-217
860 and 941AD. The Rus' attack of 907, unrecorded in Greek sources,
is probably fictional. S. Franklin and J. Shepard, The
emergence of Rus: 750-1200, New York: Longman, 1996, p.
A. Poppe, 'The political background to the baptism of Rus:
Byzantine-Russian relations between 986-989', Dumbarton Oaks
Papers 30, 1976, p.197-242. For evidence of tension among
the citizens, see particularly p. 216-217.
Dosogne (Ed.) Splendeur de Byzance, Brussels, 1982,
p.110, where D. Gaborit-Chopin attributes it to a
Constantinopolitan workshop, c. 1000 AD, but notes that others have
dated this piece much later - 12th or 14th century.
10 According to Weitzmann. K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the
Byzantine and early mediaeval antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks
collection, vol. 3: ivories and steatites,
Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1972, p. 50-52.
11 Weaponry seems to be among the few items where art often
reflects contemporary usage, perhaps because it had little effect
on the 'recognition value' of the characters depicted.
12 For example, compare an ivory plaque of a standing warrior
in Antique muscled cuirass, tenth century, in the Dumbarton Oaks
collection, illustrated in Weitzmann, op. cit., cat. no. 21. pl.
13 C.L. Connor, The color of ivory: polychromy on
Byzantine ivories. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
14 British Museum, Dept. of Medieval and Later Antiquities,
inv. no. 85,8-4,4 (tenth century). Illustrated in O.M. Dalton,
Catalogue of the ivory carvings of the early Christian
era, London, 1909, pl.12; and E. Kitzinger, Early
medieval art, (2nd. ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1983, fig. 24.
15 Weitzmann, op. cit., p. 49.
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