A warrior with a ‘Danish axe’ in a Byzantine ivory panel

Gouden Hoorn 8,1 (2000): Peter Beatson

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):

Picture of 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.

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.

Warrior with Danish axe

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 inhabitants.8

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 – chrisandpeter[@]ozemail.com.au

1 Cäcilienstraße 29, D-50667 Köln (Cologne) Germany. Web site: http://www.museenkoeln.de

2 J. Petersen, De norske vikingesværd, Kristiania 1919.

3 Petersen, ibid.

4 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.

5 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, 1985.

6 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 and others.

7 860 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. 103-107.

8 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.

9 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. 22.

13 C.L. Connor, The color of ivory: polychromy on Byzantine ivories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

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.

Published in print in Golden Horn Vol. 8, issue 1 (2000)