An anonymous tenth-century artist presents the story of the healing of a possessed man in this small ivory carving. With its open worked checkerboard background, originally layered with a copper plate, the relief was part of a larger narrative of the story of Christ, told in fifty or sixty similar ivory carvings. These were probably made for some form of liturgical furniture in the cathedral of Magdeburg. Only sixteen of these Magdeburg ivories have survived today (Jülich 2007: 85–6).
The artist has chosen the exact moment when Christ is ordering a demon to leave the man’s body. In this powerful symmetrical composition, we see Christ in profile on the left. Behind him—somewhat close and cramped together—are the twelve disciples. Peter is the most prominent, with his keys in his right hand (Matthew 16:19; 18:18), while further to the back some of the disciples are indicated only by their hair.
The right side of the relief is taken up by the possessed man, a winged demon flying out of his mouth (the head of the demon has broken off), and a person constraining him. By including this latter figure, the artist seems to refer to the verses where the possessed man is being described as wild, and difficult to hold down (Mark 5:4; Luke 8:29). Three small pigs are looking up curiously at the scene in front of them, still unaware of their impending fate.
In the Gospels the demon reveals his name as ‘Legion’, ‘for we are many’ (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30). A legion was a unit of around 6000 men in the Roman army, so this could be seen as a direct allusion to the contemporary Roman occupation of Palestine (Boring 2006: 151). By expelling ‘Legion’ from the possessed man, Christ’s power is surpassing even that of the greatest earthly power of his time.
In this ivory carving, his superior authority is visualized. There is a monumentality to Christ’s figure even though the ivory object itself is relatively small, and there is a decisiveness in the gesture of his right hand as it points towards the demon. These elements create an important clarity, helping the beholder immediately to recognize and understand Christ’s power.
Boring, M. Eugene. 2006. Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Jülich, Theo. 2007. Die mitteralterlichen Elefenbeinarbeiten des Hessischen Landermuseum Darmstadt (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner)
Lasko, Peter. 1994. Ars sacra, 800–1200 (New Haven: Yale University Press)
28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” 32And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. 33The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. 34And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
5 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerʹasenes. 2And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, 3who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones. 6And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him; 7and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country. 11Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; 12and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” 13So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
14 The herdsmen fled, and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine. 17And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. 18And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapʹolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled.
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerʹasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” 29For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerʹasenes asked him to depart from them; for they were seized with great fear; so he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but he sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.