About ‘The Ivory of the Saints’
Iconography of the ivory plaques
In the collection of The Cloisters, in New York City, there is an ivory diptych made in France circa 1260-1270. It was made for personal devotion and, though its workmanship is far finer, it is essentially an object of the same kind as the diptych plaques pictured here. Simon was killed in 1265, placing the time of his death and the rise of the belief in his sanctity right at the time of the making of the Cloisters diptych, and most likely of this diptych as well.
Comments are welcomed.
Right Hand Plaque:
Central figure: Christ of Palm Sunday and/or Simon as a penitent. The figure is displaying his bare feet and is carrying a palm frond: both are symbolic of a penitent. The palm frond indicates that the person has made a pilgrimage to Palestine. Simon not only had been to Palestine, but the Christian lords there sought to have him govern them.
In an age when everyone wore satins in vivid colors, Simon wore black wool, marking him as a penitient for all to see; this aspect of him fascinated and characterized him for his followers.
The symbology of the flanking images, and the images on the facing plaque, add to the possibility that the central figure may be of Simon de Montfort. After his death the belief in his sainthood, and even that he was the Savior reincarnated, was a covert but wide-spread religious movement. During his lifetime Simon actively discouraged such ideas: they were heretical, counterproductive for the securing of Parliament, and greatly endangered him by rousing the fears and jealousies of the barons.
However, it may not be impossible that this ivory is a surviving devotional object made for a follower of Simon de Montfort.
Top center: God the Father flanked by angels.
Upper Left: Saint Peter with the key to the Gates of Heaven.
Upper Right: Saint George slaying the dragon and holding a shield with the cross emblazoned on it. Symbolic of England.
Middle Left: Possibly Saint Joachim with a sheep: St Joachim was the father of Mary and husband to St Ann. He was the grandfather of Jesus. Joachim brought his sheep for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem and was turned away: hence the Rejected: “despised and rejected of men,” a phrase describing Jesus, but popular in the devotion to Simon.
As for the sheep: at several times in his life Simon had significant influence in converting the three-field agricultural system over to sheep raising, and during his time of leadership of England he strenuously promoted the liberating of the country from foreign influence in wool trade. His followers were identified by their wearing white, undyed wool robes.
The reference to Joachim may also refer to Joachim del Flor whose writings predicted the imminent approach of the Millennium, of which Simon was believed by many to be the Angel with the Sword who brings in the New Age.
Middle Right: Possibly Saint Mary Magdalene shown grieving, with her hair loose bout her shoulders, as she holds up a chalice. This would be Mary Magdalene as she came to Jesus when he was in Bethany, and poured over him a costly ointment usually reserved for the dead — prefiguring his crucifixion. Hence symbolic of grief and martyrdom.
Bottom Left: Female saint with a palm frond and a distaff: identification unknown.
Bottom Center: Possibly Saint Francis with a cross and a book. Saint Francis and Joachim del Flor together provided the foundation of the movement that sought to recognize Simon as a saint, and the new form of government he founded as the expression of the New Millennium. Saint Francis, as the saint most sympathetic to the common people, is particularly suitable as the base upon which Simon stands.
Bottom Right: A king with the palm frond of a pilgrim. Identification unknown.
Left Hand Plaque:
Upper Left: Saint Louis with crown and robe of fleurs des lis. Simon’s good friend.
Upper Right: Saint Dominic, with a dog holding a torch in its mouth. The dog and torch refer to a dream Dominic’s mother had when she was pregnant with him. Saint Dominic founded the Dominican Order to counter the Albigensian heresy by force of argument, as Simon’s father countered the heresy by force of arms.
Middle Left: Saint Thomas Becket, his scull being severed with a sword as he holds a book and stylus. Simon was considered a martyr to kingly tyranny, and as such the next in decent from Becket who, as Archbishop of Canterbury, sought to limit royal power and was murdered by order of King Henry.
Middle Right: Possibly Saint Margaret, pictured with a dragon head at lower right. Saint Margaret was tortured and martyred. After her first sufferings of torture, she had a vision of the devil as a dragon which was about to devour her. She dispelled the dragon with the sign of the Cross. Her story is of unshakeable faith in the face of fear and death.
This image may also refer to Queen Margaret of France who heard Simon’s trial for treason after he had been tortured by King Henry. The symbolism of the heart held up in the saint’s hand has not been identified.
Bottom Left: Possibly Saint Martin of Tours who was a knight, but renounced warfare to become a religious. He lived in constant conflict with the Roman emperors, as Simon, also a knight, lived in conflict with his king.
Bottom Right: Possibly Saint Lawrence. The figure here shows clerical costume with the hair cut in a tonsure, as is appropriate for Lawrence. The chalice is a rare attribute of Saint Lawrence, but is referred to by Saint Augustine. Saint Lawrence served the poor and was martyred in part as a result of that service — paralleling Simon’s death as he defended the rights of the common people.