The ivory throne, preserved in the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna, embodies the pastoral authority of Bishop Maximian [i] who in 546 was preparing to run the local Church [ii].
This episcopal seat in the carved ivory panels illustrates stories of Christ firmly desired by the theological and catechetical culture of Maximian himself, native of Pola. In the internal part of the bench, we can observe episodes that are perfectly suited to the liturgical season of Christmas and the Epiphany of the Lord. These are the panels depicting the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi.
The first shows an episode taken from the apocryphal proto-gospel of James, where Mary has just healed the midwife Salome whose hand had dried up: that is, she had not believed that the Virgin carried the Incarnate God in her womb. This theme takes up the anti-Arian polemic to reaffirm the dogma of the divinity of Christ.
A century earlier another bishop of Ravenna, San Pietro Crisologo (426-450), in his Sermons on Advent and on Christmas Season [iii], reiterated the same concepts: “…When the Virgin conceives, a virgin gives birth and a virgin remains. It’s not part of the order of nature, but of divine signs. Reason is not involved, but superior power, not nature, but the Creator. It is not normal, but singular; it is a divine fact, not human … “[iv].
In 1774 the priest and scholar of antiquity Don Carlo Trivulzio bought in Milan, from a Roman antiquarian, an ivory tablet with the Nativity and the Healing of Salomè on one side and the Entrance to Jerusalem on the other [v]. Don Trivulzio leaves a precious illustrated manuscript (now preserved in the Trivulziana Library at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan) where he carefully examines the tile, recognizing iconographically the provenance from Ravenna and the inspiration from the apocryphal Gospels: “… This ancient inestimable sacred ivory monument of the Archiepiscopal Throne of Ravenna comes to be very close to the time when the ordinary consuls ended […]. It follows rightly that the present tablet, as part of that sacred seat, comes to enjoy the same esteem: and this is how I can rightly rejoice in being in possession of a sacred ivory very close to the age of the consular diptychs… “. After passing into the Trotti collection of Locate Trivulzio, in 1898 the tablet was part of the collection of Count Gregorio Stroganoff, who – thanks also to the intervention of the Ravenna superintendent Corrado Ricci – donated the tile to Ravenna in 1903[vi].
The second tile represents the Virgin seated on a throne on a stool showing the Child reaching out the Magi, with an Archangel and Saint Joseph in the background. Above, as in the previous episode of the Nativity, the star appears indicating the place of the Savior’s birth. Unfortunately, the scene alongside with the adoration of the three Magi [vii] was lost. According to the historical research of Carlo Cecchelli, in 1743 the lost tile was bought by the Ferrarese priest and scholar Girolamo Baruffaldi, when he was vicar general in Ravenna. Cecchelli himself hoped that the disappeared ivory tablet “will one day come out of a private collection” [viii]. This figurative epiphany still inspires the subsequent medieval art in Ravenna, with a ‘Byzantine’ taste. Monsignor Mazzotti identified a similar scene in a Greek marble bas-relief with the Adoration of the Magi, together with (perhaps) St. John receiving the Book of Revelation from the Angel and St. Peter [ix]. This sculpture is placed at the bottom of the right aisle of the basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista [x]. Unfortunately, even in this case the episode with the Magi is mutilated: only one arm appears giving a hemispherical jar to the Virgin who – seated on a throne with stool – holds the Child. According to Mazzotti, the fragment was a pluteus, that is, it was part of the presbytery enclosure of the marble chair of Benvenuto, the Benedictine abbot of San Giovanni Evangelista. This seat is still used in the main altar of the basilica. On the back we read the Latin inscription with the date “MCCLXVII” (1267).
Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna
[i] G. Bovini, La Cattedra eburnea del vescovo Massimiano di Ravenna, Ravenna 1990, p. 13.
[ii] G. Montanari, Mosaico, culto, cultura. La cultura religiosa nei mosaici delle basiliche ravennati, Ravenna 2000, pp. 79-82; G. Gardini, in Le collezioni del Museo Arcivescovile di Ravenna, a cura dell’Opera di Religione della Diocesi di Ravenna, Ravenna 2011, pp. 73-83.
[iii] E. Penni, La liturgia diventa arte. Il Battistero Neoniano e la Cattedra di Massimiano a Ravenna, Cesena 2017, pp. 27-29, 31-38.
[iv] Sermone 148.
[v] F. Tasso, Il codice N 9 C 88-89 della Biblioteca Trivulziana di Milano: un importante manoscritto di don Carlo Trivulzio sulla cattedra di Massimiano, in “Libri e Documenti”, XXXVIII, 2012, pp. 107-116, http://www.academia.edu.
[vi] M. Pontone, Collezionismo di avori in Casa Trivulzio nella seconda metà del Settecento, in “Libri e Documenti”, cit., pp. 81-105.
[viii] C. Cecchelli, La cattedra di Massimiano ed altri avorii romano-orientali, Roma 1935-1936, p. 184.
[ix] M. Mazzotti, Sculture inedite di S. Giovanni Evangelista di Ravenna, in “Felix Ravenna” 5-6, CV-CVI, 1973, pp. 220, 222-225.
[x] F. Trerè, Appunti per una storia della scultura del Trecento a Ravenna, in “Romagna. Arte e Storia”, 95, 2012, pp. 26-30.