A Warrior with a ‘Danish Axe’
in a
Byzantine Ivory Panel

Peter Beatson - NVG Miklagard

Publication (please cite) - Peter Beatson (2000), A warrior with a 'Danish axe' in a Byzantine ivory panel.
Gouden Hoorn: Tijdschrift over Byzantium / Golden Horn: Journal of Byzantium 8(1). link

The Schnütgen Museum1 in the Romanesque church of St. Cäcilien houses the religious treasures of Cologne. It contains a small selection of Byzantine arts, including an ivory plaque dated to the tenth or eleventh century:

The flat panel once decorated an object such as a casket, fastened by six pegs for which holes remain. The sturdy figure of a warrior, holding an axe and a sword, fills and partly intrudes onto the frame. Though the semi-nude warrior seems inspired by an Antique model like so many similar ivories of the late tenth century (see below), the armaments are contemporary to the creation of the piece.

Most interestingly, they are alien to the Mediterranean area. With its broad single blade and man-high handle, the axe is very similar to a late Viking style, Petersen’s Type M, the so-called ‘Dane-axe’ most familiarly rendered in the hands of Anglo-Saxon huscarles on the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’. The sword, with its short plain cross and heavy semicircular pommel (Petersen Type X), is typical of widespread northwestern European styles around 1000AD2 .

Figure 1. Ivory plaque, Byzantine 10-11th centuries. Schnütgen Museum, Cologne (inv. no. B-6). Actual size about 5 cm. Author’s photograph.

The Byzantine military thematic system based on native-born soldier-farmers broke down in the eleventh century, and Western mercenaries were hired in ever-increasing numbers. Even before this, under treaties with the Rus’ state dating as early as 911AD3 , Russian troops were allowed to enter the Byzantine army, and their presence is attested in strategic manuals after the mid-tenth century4. The professional troops of the Princes of Kiev at this time were largely Scandinavian (in Rus’ they were known as Varangians).

The Varangians in Byzantium of course became well known for their heavy iron axes (a common later appellation was Gk. pelekophori, “axe-bearers”5). Could a Constantinopolitan artist of this earlier time have seen such foreigners, and copied their distinctive weapons, and if so, why?

A large Russian force was stationed around Constantinople while Basil II was preparing to counter the rebel Bardas Phokas in 988-989AD6.
Given that the Rus’ had besieged the capital itself twice7 , and their last raids into the Empire had occurred only twenty years before, their armed presence may have been of great interest and not a little apprehension to the inhabitants.

There is a possibility that the ivory itself was produced in the West, that is, by a carver of one of the Ottonian (Holy Roman Empire) schools. An inscription appears in the upper left corner, but is unfortunately illegible, even identifying it as Greek or Latin seems impossible.

Can this piece be accepted as Byzantine? The clumsy posture, blocky musculature, and ill-proportioned limbs distinguish this plaque from the finest Byzantine ivories, but can be recognised in other works, such as an icon of the Nativity (tenth century) in the British Museum8 , which also matches in the style in which the hair is rendered. Though the background is deeply cut, the figure is flatly modeled, this has been noted in some other casket panels of the period9 .

Finally, what is the warrior wearing? He appears to be bare-chested and wearing loose drawers or possibly a ‘kilt’ gathered around the waist (perhaps some sort of underwear? - compare Figure 2:

Figure 2. Ivory icon of the Forty Martyrs of Sebastea (detail), showing men’s undergarments. Constantinople c.1000AD 10. Staatliche Museen, Berlin (Früchristlich-Byzantinische Sammlung, inventory no. 574). From Gaborit-Chopin, 1982, p.110.

Note - the ‘Forty Martyrs’ were stripped and forced into a freezing lake, therefore they are depicted in undergarments.

His thighs and knees are possibly also bare, his shins and feet clad in either puttees plus shoes, or high boots. The “bare chest” might instead be a muscled cuirass in the Antique fashion, with a fancy petaled border at the waist, worn over a tunic with a flaring skirt (compare Figure 3, below):

There are, however, no trace of markings at the neck, or at the shoulder or wrist to indicate upper body armour or clothing (though it might be that such extra details were painted in, as most, if not all, ivories were originally brightly coloured11).

Figure 3. Ivory plaque of a standing warrior in Antique muscled cuirass, 10th century. Dumbarton Oaks collection, Washington DC (from Weitzmann, 1972, cat. no. 21. pl. 22).

In many ways Byzantine art was consciously backward looking, with a cultivated taste for Ancient Hellenic and Roman styles. In the conservative milieu of the metropolitan workshops artists drew on earlier archetypes, not current fashions12 . Warriors in Byzantine ivories are therefore usually descended from two sets of Late Antique models - the Biblical story of Joshua, or the mythological war of Dionysus with India13 . These (especially the latter) can contain representations of naked or semi-naked warriors, but they normally wear only a chlamys (cloak), not pants or drawers, so the exact inspiration for this plaque remains obscure.


Cross, S.H. and O.P. Sherbowitz-Taylor. The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text. (translation and notes). Mediaeval Academy of America: Cambridge MA, 1973.

Connor, C.L. The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1998.

Dalton, O.M. Catalogue of the Ivory Carvings of the Early Christian Era, with Examples of Mohammedan Art and Carvings in Bone in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography of the British Museum. British Museum: London, 1909.

Dennis, G.T. Three Byzantine military treatises. (text, translation, and notes). Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae , vol. 25. Dumbarton Oaks: Washington, D.C. , 1985.

Franklin, S. and J. Shepard. The Emergence of Rus: 750-1200. Longman: New York.

Gaborit-Chopin, D. ‘Les ivoires’. In: J. Lafontaine-Dosogne (Ed.) Splendeur de Byzance (catalogue of the exhibition at the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, October 2nd-December 2nd 1982). Brussels, 1982.

Gautier, P. Nicéphore Bryennios: Histoire (text, French translation, and notes). Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae, vol. 9. Byzantion: Brussels, 1975.

Kitzinger, E. Early Medieval Art. (2nd. ed.). Indiana University Press: Bloomington 1983.

Oakeshott, E. Records of the Medieval Sword. Boydell Press: Woodbridge UK, 1991

Poppe, A. (1976). ‘The political background to the baptism of Rus: Byzantine-Russian relations between 986-989’. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30, 197-242.

Weitzmann, K. Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection: Volume 3. Ivories and Steatites. Dumbarton Oaks: Washington D.C. 1972.


1 Cäcilienstraße 29, D-50667 Köln (Cologne) Germany. http://www.museenkoeln.de

2 For example, see Oakeshott, 1991, cat. X-4, p.24.

3 Anon., Russian Primary Chronicle, translation Cross and Sherbowitz-Taylor, 1973, p.68.

4 Eg. Anonymous Book on Tactics (De re militari), c.995AD, text and translation in Dennis, 1985.

5 Eg. Nikephoros Bryennios, History, late 11th century. Text and translation of Gautier, 1975, p.216-217.

6 Poppe, 1976.

7 860 and 947AD. An attack in 911 is not recorded in Greek sources. Franklin and Shepard, 1996.

8 British Museum, Dept. of Medieval and Later Antiquities, inv. no. 85,8-4,4. Illustrated in Dalton, 1909, pl.12; Kitzinger, 1983, fig. 24.

9 Weitzmann, 1972, p.49.

10 Gaborit-Chopin, 1982, p.110. She notes that others have dated this piece much later - 12th or 14th century.

11 Connor, 1998.

12 Weaponry seems to be among the few items where art sometimes reflects contemporary usage, perhaps because it had little effect on the ‘recognition value’ of the characters depicted.

13 According to Weitzmann, 1972, p.50-52. Which is to say nothing of the abundant images of warrior-saints and triumphant emperors, and a few other Biblical scenes such as the combat of David and Goliath.

Varangians with axes. Johannes Skylitzes, Synopsis Historiarum, detail - Madrid ms. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 26 verso(a); 12th cent. return


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