• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The St Mark Ivories: The Grado Chair That Never Was


Fig.1 - The Annunciation, Museo del Castello Sforzesco, Milan.


In 1899 a group of ivory carvings (figs. 1-5 provide a sample) was connected with the Grado chair, given by Heraklios to the Cathedral of Grado (today the church of St. Eufemia) on the northern Adriatic.[1] Apparently, the Grado chair was partly dismantled in the sixteenth and totally taken apart in the eighteenth century. At first, many of these parts were in private collections that could clearly document their provenance. In the following centuries, however, many parts were placed in public museums and their documents were lost.


Thanks to the Scooby-Doo nature of the evidence, some scholars refuse to believe the Grado chair existed or that the ivories are even from the town. It is seen as folly to follow Hans Graeven who – ingeniously or madly – argued that the ivories were Alexandrian in origin and had once formed part of an ensemble that combined to make the chair of St Mark – gifted to Grado by Heraklios.[2]


Fig.2 - The Nativity, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC.


The earliest mention of the chair (cathedra) is found in the acts of a synod held in Mantua (AD 827) when the Church tried to unify the two patriarchates of Grado and Aquileia (after the division following the Lombard invasion in the late sixth century). Here reference is made to two sedes used by Sts Mark and Hermagoras, which the patriarch Paulus had moved along with other treasures (from Aquileia to Grado) when fleeing the invaders:


“[Paulus patriarcha] ex civitate Aquileiensi, et de propria sede ad Gradus insulam, plebem suam, confugiens… sedes sanctorum Marci et Hermachorae secum ad eamdem insulam detulit.”[3]


Fig.3 - St Menas, Museo del Castello Sforzesco, Milan.


The problem is, first, that there are two cathedrae, one of St Mark and the other of St Hermagoras. Second, there appears in Venice a throne connected with St Mark. This is the marble throne that’s now in the Tesoro di San Marco (fig. 6), which before 1534 stood in the main apse behind the high altar. R. Garrucci believed this to be the throne of St Mark which presumably came with the saint’s relics directly from Alexandria to Venice in AD 828.[4] In his opinion, the Grado throne could not have been the cathedra of St Mark because the Aquileian Acts of St Mark explicitly mentioned a throne of ivory:


“… usque in hodiernam diem… in eadem ecclesia perseverat, ex ebore utique antiquo cathedra, politis compacta tabulis: in qua quidem sedisse illum, dum evangelicas paginas exeraret, priscorum non reticuit memoria relatorum…”[5]


Fig.4 - St Mark Baptising Anianos, Museo del Castello Sforzesco, Milan.


However, it does not seem likely that there existed two chairs of St Mark, one in Grado and the other in nearby Venice. The question must be asked whether the one mentioned as having been in Grado is not the same which at some point in the Middle Ages was removed from Grado and brought to Venice where the folk venerated it as an esteemed relic of their patron saint.[6] This solution has the advantage of making unnecessary the assumption of two St Mark cathedrae and agrees with the sources (which mention that in the early period there were two chairs in Grado but never say that both of them were of ivory). N.B. Only where a single chair is mentioned, as in the Aquileian Acts, is this material (ivory) explicitly mentioned. Thus we can assume that of the two cathedrae which Grado once possessed, one was ivory, the other marble.


That there was an ivory throne in Grado connected with St Mark when there was a marble throne in Venice is made clear by a passage in the Commentarii Aquileienses of Giovanni Candido, writte prior to AD 1521, which reads:


Cathedram qua Alexandriae Marcus Evangelista praesederat vidimus in Sacrario Gradensi laceram ebore consertam.”


Fig.5 - The Raising of Lazarus, British Museum, London.


Sixteenth-century Grado, then, was left with only one venerated bishop’s cathedra instead of the two mentioned in the earliest sources. And opting for the more prestigious name, the city’s tradition connected their chair with St Mark instead of St Hermagoras. More to the point, not one of the sources that mention a cathedra of ivory makes the slightest reference to its artistic decoration. And it cannot be assumed that all were as richly adorned as the Maximianus cathedra at Ravenna (fig. 7), so the chair can’t carelessly be associated with a rich cycle of narrative plaques solely on the strength of being a glamorous luxury item.


If the literary sources jar with Graeven’s thesis (which connects the ivory plaques depicting the life of St Mark with the ivory throne of Grado) perhaps evaluating the style of the ivories might prove more productive. Though this is risky (the stylistic assessment of material objects is rarely as clear-cut as academic authorities like to pretend – not least because the location of workshops can often count for a lot more than the period) it can be fruitful.


Fig.6 - Throne of St Mark, Tesoro di San Marco, Venice.


Contemporary works include the Louvre ivory of St Mark and his thirty-five successors (fig. 8) that’s dated to the early seventh century. The two lack stylistic agreements, however. The Louvre relief has spatial depth under clinging drapery while the seated Mark of the London (Grado) plaque is heavily linear and the body dematerialised. In short, it is further removed from the classical tradition thanks to elements of abstraction.


Another work is the marble Menas plaque of the fifth century (fig. 9), which shares a close iconographic relationship with the St Mark (Grado) ivories, both reflecting a famous cult image of the Menas sanctuary in the desert west of Alexandria. Stylistically, however, there is a large gap. The marble Menas figure stands at ease, its body reveals a fleshy corporeality. In contrast, the Menas of the ivory stands evenly distributed with garments as (mostly) flat surfaces.


Fig.7 - Throne of Maximianus, Archiepiscopal Museum, Ravenna.


A third work is the sixth-century Codex Sinopensis, which some argue contains a depiction of the city of Jerusalem (fig. 10) that’s alike to the walled city behind Christ in the Lazarus (Grado) ivory. But the walls in the former produces the spatial effect of a real circular enclosure with buildings rendered in perspective to the rotunda. Conversely, in the latter the sharp angle in the wall impairs the illusion of perspective, the diagonal base of the otherwise frontal rotunda flattens it and the pair of towers give the impression of two-dimensionality.


The fourth work, the ninth-century miniatures of the Sacra Parallela (Paris, Bibl. Nat. cod. gr. 923) is far more promising (fig. 11). Made in Palestine, within its illustration of the Good Samaritan the two cities (Jerusalem and Jericho) conform to the Hellenistic formula of a walled city but are completely flattened. In general, the consistent projection of architectural details on a two-dimensional plane is very similar to the (Grado) ivories.


Fig.8 - The St Mark Ivory, The Louvre, Paris.


A date of c. AD 600 for the (Grado) ivories is therefore stylistically unlikely; a date of a century or so later is probable. That said, if the ivories did not decorate the so-called St Mark’s cathedra of Grado then is there any reason to group them together under one date or even elements of one object? The argument that they once formed a single item is less stylistic than technical. The majority of plaques are of a standard size: c. 19.7 cm in height and c. 9.2 cm in width. Perhaps – given a book cover is unlikely[7] – they once formed part of a rosette casket? Or an ebony chest of the variety that Evelyn White saw when he visited the White Monastery? Or a door?[8] Or perhaps they never constituted an object and came to the West like an IKEA pack via Amalfi? And if they did adorn a single object – what region did it hail from?


To answer the last question, Alexandria recommends herself first of all thanks to the iconographical trends. The extensive cycle of the life of St Mark with his adventures in nearby Cyrenaica, and the representation of St Menas in the manner of a cult image, familiar from the countless Menas ampullae and a sixth-century ivory pyxis in the British Museum (surely made in Egypt), seem to justify the attribution of the ivories to Alexandria.


Fig.9 - Holy Menas, Kunsthistorisches Musuem, Vienna.


However, the classical style began to decline rapidly after the sixth century (the Aachen pulpit ivories are the last manifestations of classical conceptions of the human body and drapery), a reality that’s hardly reconcilable with the fact the (Grado) ivories – for all their relative simplicity – display an incredible amount of artistic refinement for post-650 date. Perhaps Syria-Palestine is a better possibility; an argument that is admittedly heavily reliant on the fact Egypt appears to have adopted a (f)rigid figure-rendering, highly stylised form in its Coptic art before any of its neighbours.



Fig.10 - Cod. suppl. gr. 1286, fol. 30v, detail: Jerusalem. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.


[1] Such gifts, though hardly common, were hardly rare. Cyril of Alexandria, for instance, presented several gifts to the imperial court at Constantinople including no fewer than fourteen cathedrae eburneae.

[2] H. Graeven, “Der heilige Markus in Rom und in der Pentapolis,” Romische Quartalschrift, 13 (1899), 109ff.

[3] G. Monticolo, “La cronaca veneziana del diacono Giovanni,” Cronache Veneziane antichissime, I, Istituto Storico Italiano, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia (1890) 63, note 1.

[4] R. Garrucci, Storia dell’arte cristiana, VI (1880), 16.

Fig.11 - Cod. gr. 923, Fol. 320v, detail: Jerusalem and Jericho. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.


[5] Acta Sanctorum Aprilis, III (Venice, 1738), 347.

[6] O. Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, Dumbarton Oak Studies, VI (1960), 10 note 27, and 16 note 53.

[7] The only ivory which possibly could have adorned a book cover is the Peter & Mark plaque (Victoria & Albert Museum, London) see fig. 12.

[8] The church of the Holy Virgin in Der es Surian has two doors with inlaid ivory plaques. The doors of the Church of St Barbara in old Cairo had doors of wood, not ivory, but were still highly figurative in a similar manner to the (Grado) ivories. The ivory doors were not as odd or exclusive as their rarity today might suggest. Indeed, the Annales of Einhard (803) contains a revealing passage: “Venit quoque Fortunatus patriarcha de Graecis, afferens secum inter cetera dona duas portas eburneas mirifico opere sculptas” (MGH, SS, I, p.191 ad a. 803).

Fig.12 - St Peter dictating the Gospel to St Mark at Rome, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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