The Soissons Diptych
Place of origin:
ca. 1270 (made)
Materials and Techniques:
Painted and gilt elephant ivory
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 9, The Dorothy and Michael Hintze Gallery, case 4
Public access description
The scenes from the Passion of Christ should be read across the two leaves of the diptych, from the bottom left and back again on the middle tier from right to left. They show: on the bottom tier, Judas receiving the 30 pieces of silver, the Betrayal of Christ, the Death of Judas, the Buffeting of Christ, Pilate washing his hands and the Flagellation; in the second row, Christ carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, the Entombment, the Resurrection and the Harrowing of Hell; and on the top register, the Maries at the Sepulchre, Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene, Christ's appearance to the Maries, the Doubting of Thomas, the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
The diptych is traditionally supposed to have come from the abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes at Soissons, France, although there is no firm documentary evidence to support this. It nevertheless gives its name to a number of related Gothic ivories of the late 13th century - the 'Soissons group' - which share the same densely populated, stacked bands of narrative scenes and elaborate High Gothic architectural forms. These diptychs, mostly showing scenes from the Passion of Christ, took this form of narrative sequence from the tympana over the doors of the great French cathedrals - as at Reims, Amiens, Notre-Dame in Paris and Rouen. Because the ivories were portable, they in turn probably acted as conduits for carrying the Gothic style and iconography from the Ile-de-France region to other parts of Europe.
The present diptych most probably dates to the years around 1270. The architectural frames of the Saint Louis Psalter, of about 1260-70, remain the best comparisons for the architecture of the ivory.
The devotional diptych is in many ways the object type most associated with the notion of Gothic ivory carving. The earliest examples probably date to the 1240s; these are complex, large and ambitious works that emerged, somewhat surprisingly, with no obvious precursors. The owners of ivory diptychs sometimes appear within their images. Such portraits indicate that they were special requests on the part of their commissioners, and they parallel the similar figures that appear in manuscripts and panel paintings of the period. The iconography of Gothic diptychs oscillated between two poles. The first of which is the desire to present narratives (Life of Christ and Virgin Mary) for envisaging. The second was the use of non-narrative images to form the focus of devotion.
Diptych representing scenes from the Passion. The background is coloured blue and the trees and crosses green, the hair and beards are gilded. The diptych is formed of three registers, each topped with an arcade of trefoil arches. Each arch is pierced, and is supported on a corbel. Above each arch is a tall gable, decorated with small crockets and pierced in the tympanum with a cinquefoil rose window decoration surrounded by three small trefoils. Between each gable is a tower, with battlementing on the summit. Between each register, there is a moulding decorated in relief with vine leaves. The architecture of the topmost register projects above the body of the diptych to form an uneven row of gables and towers. The carved scenes each take place beneath one of the trefoil arches, although there are no divisions between them, so that they spread out across the diptych to appear as a single relief of figures. The narrative starts in the lowest register and reads from left to right, the moves to the middle register reading from right to left. They depict: Judas receiving the thirty pieces of silver from the High Priest; the Betrayal; Judas hangs himself; Christ led before Pilate; Pilate washes his hands; the Flagellation; Christ carrying his cross; the Crucifixion; the Deposition; the Entombment; the Resurrection; the Harrowing of Hell; the Maries at the Sepulchre; Christ appearing to St. Mary Magdalene; the appearance to the three Maries; the Incredulity of St. Thomas; the Ascension; Pentecost.
Height: 32.1 cm of left leaf, Width: 23.4 cm each leaf, Depth: 1.9 cm, Weight: 1.08 kg, Height: 31.9 cm of right leaf, Width: 11.8 cm of each leaf
Object history note
The ivory is said to have come from the abbey of St Jean-des-Vignes at Soissons and thereby gives its name to a group of related ivories. This group consists mainly of comparatively large-scale ivory diptychs, and slightly smaller triptychs. They are usually divided into three horizontal bands with a rich architectural framework of cusped arches and pierced High Gothic gables.
In 1861 Alfred Darcel stated that the diptych was already in England, having been removed from the abbey of Saint Jean-des-Vignes in Soissons during the French Revolution. It was presumably at that time in the possession of John Webb in London, although by the following year it was decribed as 'from the Treasury of the Cathedral of Soissons' rather than from Saint-Jean-des-Vignes. The diptych was purchased from Webb in 1865, for £308, the curator J.C. Robinson again noting that is was 'formerly in the treasury of the Cathedral in Soissons'.
Historical significance: The term Soisson group is slightly misleading because these diptychs and triptychs were produced in Paris and the 'group' includes pieces in different styles. The earliest, highest quality ivories of the group date from around 1250-70 among them the so-called 'Salting Leaf' (A546-1910), also in the V&A collection. The later ivories, including the present diptych, show slightly stiffer, more simplified elements but with a heavier treatment of drapery and a more complex architectural setting. Most pieces of this group are partly polychromed. The features of the present diptych are closely related to the 'Portail de la Calande' of the south transept of Rouen cathedral of about 1290-1305. It has been suggested that the approach to narrative and the placing of figures in comparable architectural settings of the portal in Rouen recommended itself to carvers of small-scale reliefs, especially in ivory and that these portable carvings of this type may have in turn occasionally provided the iconographic models for monumental sculpture further afield.
Historical context note
Such objects seem to have been highly popular among both the clergy and the laity. The growing popularity of ivory diptychs during the second half of the thirteenth century can be seen as a response to the emphasis on personal worship.
Diptych, ivory, 'the Soissons Diptych', depicting the Passion of Christ, by the Master of the Soissons Diptych, French (Paris), ca. 1270
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
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Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1865. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 31
Wiliamson, Paul. Gothic Sculpture, 1140-1300. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995, pl. 253
Williamson, Paul, ed., The Medieval Treasury: the Art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986 pp. 188-189
Williamson, Paul. Gothic Sculpture 1140-1300 New Haven and London, 1995, pl. 253 and p. 168
Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, Part II, p. 10
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pp. 42-44, ill.
Maskell, W. A Description of the Ivories Ancient and Medieval in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1872
pp. 162-64, pl. XXXII
Maskell, A., Ivories, London, 1905
I, pp. 75-76, II, cat. no. 38, III, pl. XV
Koechlin, R., Les Ivoires gothiques français, 3 vols, Paris, 1924 (reprinted Paris 1968)
pp. 89-90, 91, pl. XXVII
Grodecki, Louis. Ivoires Français. Paris, 1947
part 1, pp. 216-221
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
Williamson, Paul, and Motture, Peta (eds.), Medieval and Renaissance Treasures, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014, part 1, pp. 216-221, cat. no. 68