Byzantine; Probably made in Constantinople
Ivory; 9 3/16 x 2 3/4 x 1/2 in. (23.4 x 7 x 1.3 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.103)
This statue follows a very widespread Byzantine image type called the Virgin Hodegetria ("she who guides"), in which the Virgin holds the Christ Child on her left arm. It is named after an icon from the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople that was the original model for the type. The Virgin Hodegetria was an icon attributed to the brush of the Apostle Luke. Guides at the Hodegon Monastery were trained to assist the blind to use a miraculous spring that was believed to restore sight.
This ivory portrays the iconography of its famous prototype: the Virgin holds Christ in her right hand while making a gesture toward him, indicating that he is the "way" to salvation. The Virgin's gesture makes her our "guide" to salvation and explains the appellation. Christ appears in a chiton and himation, while holding a rotulus, attributes of a classical philosopher that were adopted from Hellenistic art. Christ is represented not as an infant, but rather as the Logos, the eternal Word. The carving emphasizes the elongated proportions of the figures and is overall restrained and refined.
Over time, some ivory icons experienced wear and tear, subsequently leading to their reconfiguration. Because Byzantine ivory carvers cut deeply into the panels to create images in high relief, the background area is thin and prone to breakage. In the case of the icon illustrated here, the image was excised from the panel to create a statuette; part of the original background can still be seen in the area between the head of Christ and his mother's left shoulder. This object served a double function: an indentation on the back indicates that it was also used as a reliquary. It is not certain whether it served this purpose from the time it was carved or only after it was detached from its ivory matrix.