From Hédervár and Eperjes to Liverpool: two ivory diptychs from the late Roman world

A new temporary display is on view in the exhibition of Classical Antiquities showing ivory diptychs with rich decoration in relief. The diptychs arrived in Hungary from Great Britain within a framework of cooperation between the National Museums in Liverpool and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, and are presented here by Ádám Bollók (HAS, Institute of Archaeology), Edit Szentesi (HAS, Institute of Art History) and Chrissy Partheni (World Museum, Liverpool).

This is not the first time for the pieces to be in Hungary: in the first half of the nineteenth century they belonged to the most significant Hungarian private collections. The Asclepius and Hygieia diptych was here for about half a century; it was first acquired by Mihály Viczay of Hédervár (1756–1831) and then moved to the collection of Gábor Fejérváry (1780–1851) in Eperjes. The latter also preserved the other piece, the leaf of the Venatio diptych, albeit only for half a decade. Fejérváry’s valuable ivory collection consisted of about a hundred works of art from different cultures: it contained ancient and Byzantine pieces; some of them exemplifying European art from the early Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, others representing Middle and Far Eastern cultures. The nephew and heir of Fejérváry, Ferenc Pulszky (1814–1897) emigrated to London in 1848 and made significant changes to the collection. In 1855, he sold all the ivories to Joseph Mayer (1803–1886), who later donated his entire collection to the city of Liverpool. The two pieces presented here are among the most beautiful examples of late antique diptychs.

Ádám Bollók
Ivory diptychs in the late Roman world

Diptych is a Greek compound from the words meaning ‘two’ and ‘to fold’. The history of ivory diptychs intended as valuable gifts harks back to the later fourth century AD, but their formal precursors date centuries earlier. In the Roman world, it was customary for officials to receive their credentials within wooden tablets fastened together with metal clasps or cords. These credentials were designated from at least the first century onwards with the Latin term codicilli – ‘booklet’. They usually consisted of two or more panels, the inner surfaces of which were covered with wax to bear the writing. In later centuries, it was more and more common to have the actual document sent to the addressee on a separate sheet of papyrus, instead of being written on the waxed inner surface of the tablets. The function of the “booklet” thus underwent some change: the foldable tablets transformed from actual writing surface into a kind of “envelope”. We are uncertain about when the custom started and how widespread it became, but sources from the fourth century AD already indicate that the tablets enclosing the documents were sometimes carved of ivory, presumably in the case of the highest-ranking officials. It was probably these “envelopes” used in the imperial administration, and in all likelihood decorated with the portrait of the emperor, that wealthy private citizens had in mind when they presented their friends with similar ivory diptychs from the last quarter of the fourth century onwards.

The first known mention of ivory diptychs in this function dates to 384 when the emperor and co-emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire prohibited the use of ivory diptychs for anyone but the appointed consuls of Constantinople. However, the earliest extant pieces originate from the western part of the empire, where the earliest securely datable ones were carved in the 390s and 400s. This suggests that the legal ban mentioned above did not affect the customs of western aristocrats, and that the custom of bestowing these objects as gifts must have arrived from the east. And indeed, the majority of the extant ivory diptychs originate from the eastern half of the Later Roman Empire, and their production is tied to the sixth-century consuls of Constantinople, or more precisely, to the consular games they organized. Yet, the earliest pieces, like the two diptychs on display here, have different backgrounds.

At the turn of the fourth and the fifth centuries the wealthiest and most influential aristocrats in the Western Roman Empire presented their peers with ivory diptychs on a number of different occasions. For instance, in 402, in the wake of the death of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the head of one of the most prestigious and affluent families, his son, Memmius Symmachus distributed diptychs decorated with images of classical Roman funerary symbolism among aristocrats in contact with his family.

Leaf of the Symmachus diptych, Rome, late 4th or early 5th century, ivory. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. 212-1865 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Similarly, the diptychs circulated by Rufius Probianus, the vicarius of Rome, on the occasion of his ascension to office, probably date only a few years earlier. The leafs, presumably commissioned and sent out to commemorate a marriage between members of the Lampadius and Rufinus families, also originate from the very end of the fourth century. They depict a Lampadius in his highest office up to that time, as suffect consul of Rome: he “presides” over a chariot race organized at the natalis Urbis, the annual celebration of the city’s foundation on 21 April. The inscriptions of the diptych offer a clear hint that the occasion for handing out the tablets, together with further gifts (and perhaps accompanied with letters), was not the race itself, but an event (in this case probably a marriage) that affected both families.

Leaf of the Venatio diptych

Based on their inscriptions and the historical figures they depict, the pieces mentioned above were certainly carved in Rome at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. The same may hold true for the single leaf of a diptych displayed at the exhibition, which represents a fallow deer hunt in an amphitheatre.

Leaf of the Venatio diptych, Rome (?), late 4th or early 5th century AD, ivory. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum, inv. no. M10042 © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
Leaf of the Venatio diptych, Rome (?), late 4th or early 5th century AD, ivory. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum, inv. no. M10042 © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

The hunts (venationes) displaying the slaughtering of exotic animals were staged at circuses and amphitheatres by wealthy citizens to entertain the public and were chiefly given on the occasion of their ascension to office or the celebration of an important festival. Lacking an inscription, it is impossible to identify the people depicted on the Liverpool tablet. The style of the representation, in accordance with the finely crafted ornamentation of the frame, connects the piece with the above-mentioned group of objects from the city of Rome, which also follows the classical artistic tradition. Scholars have long dated this diptych to the first decades of the fifth century, and have assumed that it was manufactured in Rome, or perhaps in northern Italy. Locating the piece’s place of production is rendered difficult by the fact that games of this kind were held in a number of cities in the western part of the Roman Empire at the time. Hunts were equally staged by the annually appointed consuls and the suffect consuls of the city of Rome, as well as by the illustrious men of provincial metropolises and the priests of the imperial cult. Neither can the close adherence to classical style be regarded as a feature uniquely characterising the art of the city of Rome either, since this artistic idiom was embraced not only by the imperial courts but also by provincial aristocrats eager to follow the stylistic trends set by court circles.

Based on the subject of the representation, however, the diptych is likely to have been commissioned by one of the noble families of Rome, when a family member was appointed to the position of quaestor, praetor or suffect consul and was thus obliged to stage such games. The upper quarter of the relief on our piece, once the left-side leaf, depicts three officials (magistrati), represented in equal height, seated behind à jour marble slabs of an ornate balustrade in the central balcony of the building that housed the event – perhaps the Colosseum in Rome.


They are clad in togas, a well-identifiable visual token of their senatorial rank. The figure in the middle, whose central position may well indicate that he is the magistratus staging the game, holds a silver dish in his right hand. His identity will remain unknown, but we may attempt to define the office he held. Assuming that the tablet was made in Rome, and based on the man’s age, he was probably a praetor, an office held by aristocrats of the period in their early twenties (as opposed to the quaestorship held in their teens).

On the majority of the diptychs, it is the central figure that holds the napkin (mappa) which was dropped by the presiding magistratus to signal the start of the game. Here, however, the mappa is not held by the central figure: it is in the right hand of the man, represented as relatively young (without a beard), seated to his left. The elder man on the right, sporting a short beard, gestures towards the honorand, to present him to the person who receives the diptych. In all probability, he is the father of the youth who staged the games to fulfil his obligation as office-holder. Also unique is the silver dish that the central figure holds instead of a mappa. The beneficiary of the diptych must have easily interpreted the meaning of the scene, even if this is much harder for us today. The silver dish may refer to the libation poured at the beginning of the games in honour of the emperor, but it may also be an allusion to a present bestowed on the addressee together with the diptych. The correspondence of Symmachus reveals that in the late fourth century, the package distributed on the occasion of the games regularly contained silver dishes beside the ivory diptychs.


The lower two-thirds of the leaf is dedicated to the hunt that takes place in the arena of the amphitheatre. Sidemen – animal keepers represented with individualised features and dressed in belt-tied tunics – enter the arena through half-open doors at the two sides of the diptych. A victorious hunter is displayed on the lower right door, holding a triumphal wreath in his hand. The five representations of the fallow deer along the vertical axis of the image show consecutive stages of the hunt, progressing from the bottom to the top. The beginning of the hunt is evoked by the animal fleeing the hunter in the arena, then stumbling in its flight. The climax of the events is shown in the centre of the scene. The hunter stands victoriously above his prey, stabbing his pike into its chest. The finely carved figure wears a long-sleeved tunic with a short-sleeved leather jacket that protected him during the fight, and puttee for covering his legs. The upper register first depicts the agony of the deer with its head bowed down, then the slain animal prostrate on the ground.

The Asclepius and Hygieia diptych

The characteristic features of the classical stylistic tradition that flourished in the late fourth and early fifth centuries are also visible on the two other leafs that once formed part of the same diptych. The identity of the piece’s commissioner is not known, either; the name that was painted in the inscriptional field (tabula ansata) at the top of the relief has long faded. Again, we can only rely on the style and iconography of the tablets to determine the date and place of their production.

Asclepius and Hygieia diptych, Rome (?) or Italy, 400–430 AD, ivory. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum, inv. no. M10044 © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
Asclepius and Hygieia diptych, Rome (?) or Italy, 400–430 AD, ivory. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum, inv. no. M10044 © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

The left leaf depicts Asclepius, the god of medicine, with his son, Telesphorus; the right one shows his daughter, Hygieia, the goddess of good health, who is accompanied by Eros. Both pairs of deities stand on plinths, which indicates that they are represented as statues. Asclepius is draped in a mantle that is thrown over his left shoulder and leaves the right side of his chest bare. The left hand of the bearded god, holding a roll, is lifted to his face, his right hand rests on his hip. With his left shoulder, he leans on a tall club that is placed on an oxhead, with a bearded serpent coiling towards its top. His son, Telesphorus, the symbol of recovery from illness, stands to his right. The child deity appears in his customary representation: in a hooded mantle covering his head, reading from an open scroll in his hand.


The other leaf depicts Hygieia clad in a long-sleeved garment (chiton) fastened at the shoulder and a mantle. Her long hair is tied into a bun and is decorated with a diadem. Her left elbow is supported by a cauldron placed on a three-foot stand (tripod) as a reference to her paternal grandfather, the god Apollo. She holds an egg in her right hand, offering it to the snake that coils up the stand and slides behind her back. She rests her left foot on the base below the tripod. Eros, with a bow in his left hand, stands on her right – the presence of the child deity may refer to the goddess’s function concerning childbirth.


The elaborate and well-proportioned treatment of the figures is paired with the subtle workmanship of the background, and the finely-crafted acanthus leaves on the frame of the tablets. Both scenes are flanked with a pair of pillars, partially covered by the ribbon decorated with swags of oak leaves that hang from the inscriptional fields at the top. The top parts of the pillars accommodate objects related to the cult of the deities. To the left of Hygieia, there is a wine jug for libation with a snake coiling around it, and a shallow votive bowl (phiale), to her right, there is a lidded basket (cista mystica) with a child letting a snake out. Due to the damaged condition of the piece, the objects shown to the right of Asclepius are lost, but the basket full of roses and laurels at the top of the left pillar is intact.

As mentioned before, the artist who carved the reliefs placed the gods on plinths, as statues, represented in a way customary during the Hellenistic and Roman imperial periods. This iconographic scheme of Asclepius – together with Telesphorus who frequently accompanied him from the second century AD onwards – is known from a number of Roman-period marble statues, some of which were found in the city of Rome. This fact alone, however, does not necessarily prove the assumption that the diptychs were also made in the city. Although a famous sanctuary of Asclepius was actually built in Rome in the third century BC and was still in operation in the fourth century AD, an imperial prohibition banned the public offerings of Graeco-Roman cults in 392, not long before the presumed date of production of the diptychs. The hypothesis that the creation of the diptych was closely tied to the sanctuary of Asclepius on Tiber Island is at any rate doubtful; its decoration is unlikely to be related to the assumption of the sanctuary’s priestly office or to an invitation of a public offering there presented. It seems more probable that similarly to other tablets produced at the time, the diptych – with its representation of traditional Graeco-Roman deities – was commissioned on the occasion of an event significant in the life of a family, but was not necessarily related to their official roles. This is also hinted at by the symbolism of the decoration tied to childbirth and healing.

Edit Szentesi
The modern history of the two ivory diptychs

Modern-day travels of the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych: from Italy through Hédervár to Eperjes

In medieval and modern Europe, ancient ivory carvings were regarded as luxury items only rivalled by engraved gems, crystal vessels, and Byzantine and Islamic purple silks and brocades. These rare and precious objects were kept safe in the treasuries of royal courts and monasteries, and in the collections of wealthy patricians, both to the north and south of the Alps.

Their first comprehensive catalogue was published in the mid-eighteenth century as a three-volume album illustrated with large-scale prints. It was the work of Antonio Francesco Gori (1691–1757), the famous Florentine antiquary, and was posthumously published by Giovanni Battista Passeri (1694–1780), an even more notable antiquary of the time. Passeri used Gori’s notes to compile a fourth volume with the description of a number of additional ivory carvings: it is a chapter of this “appendix” that describes the Asclepius and Hygieia panels.

Johannis Vercruys’s engraving of the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych, in Giovanni Battista Passeri, In monumenta sacra eburnea a clarissimo Antonio Francisco Gorio ad quartam huius operis partem reservata expositiones… Florentiae, 1759, 62–64, pls XX–XXI.

The treatise assumes the diptych to have been created after the fourteenth century, arguing that its iconographic program, characterised by an accumulation of details around the main figures, is a learned compilation based on the scrutiny of ancient works of art; its crammed symbolism would be contrary to how gods were represented in antiquity.

About half a century later, in 1806, Felice Caronni (1747–1815), a member of the Barnabites, antiquary and engraver, who was chiefly interested in ancient numismatics, contended in a sixty-page essay that the groups of images indeed have ancient parallels – primarily on coins and especially on those struck in Pergamon.

Felice Caronni’s engraving of the Asclepius and Hygieia dyptich, in Felice Caronni, “Dittico eburneo di Esculapio”, in Ragguaglio di alcuni monumenti di antichità… Milano, 1806, 201–65, pls IX–X.

He thus regarded the tablets as “originals” from antiquity, probably created during the reign of Caracalla (211–217) and offered as votives by the emperor himself to the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Pergamon (today Bergama, Turkey). On his campaign in Asia Minor in 216, the ruler visited one of the most significant cult places of Asclepius and lavished it with gifts, hoping the god would free him from his nightmares. Caronni also claimed that the diptych was considered to be ancient by all the connoisseurs he had shown them to: the cream of the contemporary scholarly and artistic circles in Tuscany. This included Luigi Lanzi and Tommaso Puccini, the keepers of the Grand Dukes’ collections (“the Uffizi”), and Raphael Morghen (1758–1833), the celebrated printmaker of the time (famed for his reproductions of the works of Leonardo and Raffaello). Morghen was so much captured by the beauty of the piece that he engraved a print of it in 1805. The accompanying inscription states that the “age-old” ivory diptych was acquired by Felice Caronni to adorn the museum of count Mihály Viczay.

Raphael Morghen’s engraving of the diptych, 1805. London, British Museum, inv. no. 1843,0513.1131 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Caronni, however, only sent the acquisition to Hédervár in the summer of 1806, accompanied by Morghen’s print and probably placed in the marquetry box he mentions in his essay. The box was created by Giovanni Maffezzoli (1776–1818) of Cremona and shows the missing corner of the Asclepius leaf with the supplement suggested by Caronni: a rooster on top of the left pilaster. It was probably also on Caronni’s request that the two tabulae ansatae, which are now blank on the object itself, were filled by Maffezzoli with a string of letters laden with abbreviations, based on coins of Caracalla struck in 214.

Giovanni Maffezzoli’s marquetry box. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
Giovanni Maffezzoli’s marquetry box. National Museums Liverpool, World Museum © Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool

As a learned collector, Mihály Viczay’s chief intention was the acquisition of a full series of ancient coins. Caronni first visited him in his castle at Hédervár in 1791 to help him compile a catalogue of his pieces and create prints for its publication. Viczay later commissioned him to make long trips in search of rare coins still missing from his collection.

In his 1806 essay, Caronni mentioned neither the former owner of the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych, nor how he acquired the piece. He merely stated that he alerted Viczay right after the discovery of the panels. Since in his reply the count, relying on Gori’s treatise, doubted the originality of the piece, in a letter dated 30 June Caronni expounded on his arguments that the diptych was ancient. (The letter was written in Latin, the lingua franca of the period, while the essay that appeared in print was its Italian translation.)

The earlier owner is not named in the Gori text either, but the title of the chapter on the diptychs and the prints published there do hint at the Gaddi family in Florence. Thus, the first reference that the diptych once belonged to their collection comes from the mid-eighteenth century. Yet, the leafs also appear on a much earlier representation, an ink drawing dated to around 1500.

Unknown artist, Sketches of objects from antiquity and the early Renaissance, ca. 1500. Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. no. 21205 © Hamburg Kunsthalle / bpk. Photo: Christoph Irrgang
Unknown artist, Sketches of objects from antiquity and the early Renaissance, ca. 1500. Hamburg, Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. no. 21205 © Hamburg Kunsthalle / bpk. Photo: Christoph Irrgang

The sheet shows sketches of about twenty statues, suggesting that they may be a sculptor’s drafts of objects once kept together, at the same place, as pieces of a collection. There is only one item among them whose provenance before the nineteenth century we are familiar with, and this is precisely the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych. Thus, around 1500, the two pieces were in Italy, although the hypothesis that the drawing indeed depicts the collection of the Gaddis, cannot be proven.

The Florentine Gaddis were a famous family of artists who accumulated their wealth as merchants and bankers in the fourteenth century. Members of the family later appeared among the ranks of the most important officials and diplomats of the (nominal) Republic of Florence, and the Duchy and Grand Duchy of Tuscany. There were also two cardinals, a protonotary apostolic, and a bishop in the family. They kept close ties with the most significant scholars and artists of their time and were learned art patrons and collectors themselves. The fabulous wealth accumulated through generations united in the hands of the last male member of the family, Niccolò Gaddi (1534–1591), who himself, too, was a passionate art collector, chiefly interested in drawings of art and architecture, paintings, gems, rare Roman coins, and ancient sculptures. He built a garden palace (the Paradiso de’ Gaddi) to house his collections in the centre of Florence, near the Basilica di San Lorenzo. Although the Asclepius diptych does not appear in the probate list of furniture in this building, this is probably of little significance, since the list does not give a detailed description of the content of the collection cabinets (scrittoi), where a diptych would most likely have been stored.

Later his heirs gradually sold the collection. Already in the seventeenth century, albums of art drawings and sheets from these albums can be traced to the greatest French and English collectors, while dozens of ancient bronze statuettes (or those considered as ancient) were auctioned in London in 1764. The “rest” was bought up in large batches for the collections of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany from the mid-eighteenth century onwards (in 1755, manuscript codices and library; in 1778, ancient works of art, mostly marble statues). It is thus quite likely that in the early years of the nineteenth century Caronni could not acquire the diptychs directly from the Gaddi collection.

Fejérváry Gábor was introduced into the world of collecting by Mihály Viczay, who passed on to him the passion for studying and appreciating works of art, and also his connections in the world of academia and the antiquities market of the time. Fejérváry did not share his paternal friend’s enthusiasm for numismatics, but he did purchase several other works of art from the bequest of Viczay, such as the most important ivory carvings. (The payment for some of these items, for instance the Asclepius diptych, was entered into the list of his expenses on 8 July 1834.)

Fejérváry’s acquisitions were made possible through his income from the opal mines in Vörösvágás (today Červenica, Slovakia). In 1831 he moved from Pest to Eperjes (today Prešov, Slovakia), a small town near the mines, and lived with his sister’s family in the main square house of the Pulszkys. Besides his art collection, he also established a library to facilitate the study of the objects he owned, which surpassed Hungarian public libraries of the time both in terms of size and by its high standard. He planned to publish an illustrated book on selected pieces of his collection, with the accompanying text written by his nephew, Ferenc Pulszky. Among Pulszky’s manuscripts prepared for this purpose, the sheet entitled Diptychon Gaddi declares Caronni’s dating “hardly tenable” and mentions traces of pigment on the tablets. Two young Viennese painters, Wolfgang Böhm (1824–1890) and Joseph Bucher (1820–1883) were engaged to make sketches of the objects for prints in the planned book of the collection. Fejérváry arranged their watercolours in an album entitled Liber Antiquitatis (Book of Antiquity), about two thirds of which survives today (and is preserved in the Collection of Classical Antiquities of the Museum of Fine Arts). The sheets depicting the ivories are lost, but we still have their photographs, taken in the 1930s.

In 1847, Fejérváry eventually composed a catalogue of his collection himself, yet without the intent of publishing it. The high esteem he attached to the diptych is clearly indicated by the fact that he held it to be the third most precious object in his collection.

Modern-day travels of the Venatio diptych:
from Burgundy through Paris to Eperjes

The modern history of the Venatio leaf can only be traced back to the early nineteenth century. It was acquired by Gábor Fejérváry through an entirely different route: Charles-Louis Rollin purchased it for him at the beginning of January 1846 at the auction of General Vivant-Jean Brunet-Denon’s collection (1776–1866).

Charles-Louis Rollin (1777–1853) was a highly esteemed numismatist. His shop, which opened from the arcades flanking the garden of the Palais Royal in Paris, a popular promenade for the elite of the time, is now considered to have been the first Parisian shop specialised in coins. This was the reason why he had been introduced to Mihály Viczay by Anton Steinbüchel, keeper of the Imperial Antiquities Collection in Vienna. In the end, Viczay’s coin collection was also sold out in Rollin’s shop. Rollin represented Fejérváry at auctions in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. He sent to him the printed catalogues of upcoming auctions, in which he had highlighted the items recommended for purchase, sometimes accompanied with drawings (and elaborated on in his letters).

The catalogue of the Brunet-Denon auction is still preserved among the volumes of Fejérváry’s library, but Rollin’s notice about the sale is missing. The laconic catalogue merely states that the object in question is one leaf of a consular diptych from the seventh century, depicting circus games staged in the presence of three consuls. For Fejérváry to purchase the piece, it sufficed to know that it was designated as a consular diptych: like Viczay before him, he consciously aimed at acquiring specimens of this rare genre.

In the 1847 manuscript catalogue of his collection, Fejérváry labelled the diptych as one of the most beautiful consular diptychs to survive, and, based on its style, dated it to the third or fourth century. Pulszky, in his 1856 monograph, argued for a third century date. He presumed that among the three spectators watching the hunt from the balcony, the one on the right must be the consul, since he holds the mappa which was used to indicate the start of the game. The person is represented without a beard, that is, as not yet an adult. This holds true for only one consul in the third century, Marcus Iulius Philippus (Philippus Caesar), the eleven- or twelve-year old son of the Emperor Philippus Arabs (244–249), who acted as co-emperor to his father from 247 onwards and as consul in 247 and 248. The central figure would then be the emperor himself, holding a dish for libation as high priest (pontifex maximus). Pulszky could not refrain from mentioning that perhaps the most extravagant circus games ever were staged in 248 to commemorate the millennium of the foundation of Rome.

In 1847 Fejérváry believed that his acquisition was still unknown to the scholarly world. He was not aware that in 1807 Aubin-Louis Millin (1745–1818) published a detailed description and a print of the ivory relief in his account of his travels in the south of France. Millin was the keeper of the Cabinet des médailles, the antiquities collection of the French royal library. He and his fellow scholars arrived in Mâcon, the seat of the Saône-et-Loire department in February 1805, and were guided there by Prudhomme Guillaume Roujoux (1779–1836), the son of the department’s prefect, who showed them his collection of antiquities. It was among these items that Millin saw the leaf of the Venatio diptych.

Leaf of the Venatio diptych on a print depicting objects in the Roujoux collection, in Aubin-Louis Millin, Voyage dans les départements du Midi de la France…, I–IV. Paris, 1807; I, 399–403 and Atlas pour servir au Vogaye dans les départements du Midi de la France … Paris, 1807, planche XXIV, nr. 3.

Still in that year, in late 1805, Millin acquired another significant ivory carving from the Roujoux collection for the Cabinet des médailles. The piece was carved in the Byzantine court workshop active in the mid-tenth century, while in the eighteenth century it was mounted inside the book binding – decorated with precious stones – of an evangeliary in the cathedral of Saint John in Besançon. The flabellum of Tournus, a liturgical fan with an ivory handle richly decorated in relief – perhaps the most famous item in the Roujoux collection – was made in the ninth century in the court of the Carolingian emperor Charles the Bald. It had been acquired from one of the most prestigious medieval monasteries in Burgundy, the Saint-Philibert Benedictine abbey in Tournus. It is thus possible that the leaf of the Venatio diptych was once also kept among the treaures of a monastery or a see near Mâcon, and was taken from there during the French revolution when clerical institutions were dissolved.

Chrissy Partheni
Joseph Mayer and his collections at National Museums Liverpool

National Museums Liverpool would have been a very different museum, if not for Joseph Mayer. The extraordinary diversity of his collections from pottery to coins, from armoury to manuscripts, engraved gems and ethnology collections and the vast chronologies and cultures they cover (from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, and prehistoric England, to late antiquity and medieval times), are testimony to his vigour as a collector and his passion for history. The excellent craftsmanship of many of the objects he collected, from across historic eras and in all their different media, clearly motivated him and he evidently used his collections as an inspiration for his business designs. He collected not solely for personal pleasure but to place these collections within reach of the public.

In 1852 he established his own museum at 8 Colquitt Street, Liverpool, because he wished to “give his fellow citizens who were unable to get to London for themselves some idea of the glories of the past as they were displayed in the British Museum”. He regretted having to impose an entrance fee to his museum mainly as a means of raising money for its running costs and to pay for future acquisitions. Such an acute sense of public ownership for his collections culminated to the donation of fourteen thousand items to the Town of Liverpool in 1867.

Joseph Mayer came to Liverpool at the young age of nineteen from Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, to apprentice initially at the silversmith business of his brother in law, James Wordley. He first worked in partnership with Wordley then in 1844 set up on his own as a goldsmith jeweller, designing and making his own work, which he did at great success. His travels abroad from as early as 1828 and for the next thirty years to France, Italy, Switzerland, and other Germanic states developed his contacts with European dealers and collectors and enhanced his understanding of the past.

Aside from his valuable international contacts and travels it was the success of Joseph Mayer’s business that enabled him to collect distinct items that one would not expect to find in the collections of local historical societies and museums of Victorian times. Although daring in his purchases, he also relied on the reasonable value of some of the items he collected as compared to higher value artefacts in the hierarchy of arts at that time. Consular ivory diptychs, unique as they are, were then considered as of the lesser decorative arts in the hierarchy of the time. The material culture and historical context significance we assign to them today was less of an interest at the time. Joseph Mayer was astute with an eye for detail and he greatly appreciated the skills, traditions, and motifs employed by the artists of the ivories. As a man of business, he was keen to innovate, and purchases such as the ivories were definitely meant to position him as a distinct collector and philanthropist in nineteenth-century Britain.

One matter Mayer bore close to his heart when collecting, was keeping private collections together as a group, rather than them being dispersed to individual collectors across the world. Thus in his letter, donating his collection to the Liverpool Library, Museum and Education Committee in 1867, Mayer emphasised his wish of retaining his collection together and that it should be known as the Mayer collection. Well before that, in 1854, he stepped in to purchase the Faussett collection of Anglo-Saxon material from Kent when the trustees of the British Museum rejected the offer. As a result of Joseph Mayer’s agility and determination together with his willingness to think beyond what was the norm in collecting practices at the time, unique and rare objects such as the Kingston Brooch from the sixth century AD and late antique consular diptychs, are now in the collections of National Museums Liverpool.

Both the Venatio and the Asclepius and Hygeia ivory panels came from the 1855 sale of Fejérváry’s collection in London by his nephew Ferenc Pulszky, and in 1856 it was already Mayer who published Pulszky’s above-mentioned monograph.

Llewellyn Jewitt’s engraving of the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych. Frontispiece in Francis Pulszky, Catalogue of the Fejérváry Ivories, in the Museum of Joseph Mayer [...]; preceded by an Essay on Antique Ivories, Liverpool, 1856. Digital image © Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Llewellyn Jewitt’s engraving of the Asclepius and Hygieia diptych. Frontispiece in Francis Pulszky, Catalogue of the Fejérváry Ivories, in the Museum of Joseph Mayer […]; preceded by an Essay on Antique Ivories, Liverpool, 1856. Digital image © Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

In the portrait by John Harris of Joseph Mayer in his Egyptian Museum in 1856, Mayer proudly stands at the entrance, next to the table with the Asclepius and Hygeia diptych on it and the publication of the Faussett Anglo-Saxon material by Roach Smith behind them. The portrait is from the time he acquired these two distinct types of collections. Mayer stands, inviting the public to his museum, proud of his achievement of saving important collections for the people of Liverpool. He was less concerned of how items from Anglo-Saxon archaeology in Britain would be displayed next to the ivories or the chronological arrangement of such distinct collections in his museum than many of us in our museums do today. Perhaps he hoped that visitors to his museum would appreciate the artistic skills reflected in the Kingston brooch from the burials of east Kent as much as the artistry behind the ivories.

John Harris, Joseph Mayer in his Egyptian Museum, ca. 1856, oil on canvas. Birkenhead, Williamson Museum and Art Gallery, inv. no. 4566 © Williamson Museum and Art Gallery
John Harris, Joseph Mayer in his Egyptian Museum, ca. 1856, oil on canvas. Birkenhead, Williamson Museum and Art Gallery, inv. no. 4566 © Williamson Museum and Art Gallery

Today the Fejérváry ivory diptychs are some of the most loved and internationally known objects in the Antiquities collections of the World Museum in Liverpool. Visitors from all over the world view them and explore their meaning, iconography, and the historical context they represent. Liverpool has always been an international city with rich cultural relationships across the world, and our collections reflect the city’s significance. It is an honour for National Museums Liverpool to collaborate with the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest to re-connect the ivories to Gábor Fejérváry’s important collections in the museum and share Mayer’s vision of public and accessible collections on an international level.

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