Against a ‘checkerboard’ background, the figure of Christ dominates this small yet monumental ivory tablet, his disciples huddled behind him, mesmerized by the miracle unfolding before them. One clutches at Christ’s cloak, his other hand on the Saviour’s back, accentuating the heavy diagonal running down through Christ’s arm to the finger that presses firmly on Peter’s shoulder.
Christ, in imperious profile, looks down at the kneeling Peter, who responds to his touch of cold command by turning his head through an anatomically impossible 180 degrees. This inspired device within a compressed visual field enriches the tablet’s narrative power, portraying Peter simultaneously in the act of receiving Christ’s instruction, ‘go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up’ (Matthew 17:27), and its fulfilment, the finding of the shekel in the fish’s mouth.
The sinuous upward thrust of the fish, continued through the rod that caught it, creates a sharp vertical along the right hand edge of the tablet that brings the viewer’s attention back to the face of Christ, in a movement that perpetually reasserts his authority over the crouching Peter.
Commissioned as a gift from Otto I to his own ‘Temple’, the cathedral at Magdeburg, the tablet was probably part of an altar frontal made up of scenes from the Life and Miracles of Christ, a number of which have survived. The inclusion of the Tribute Money alongside more familiar miracles suggests that it had special meaning for its patron, the Holy Roman Emperor, perhaps as an assertion of his right as one of the ‘kings of the earth’ (v.25) anointed by God, to take tribute from his subjects, a right sanctioned by Christ in the shekel he commanded Peter to pay.
Lasko, Peter. 1979. Ars Sacra: 800–1200 (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 88–90
Little, Charles T. 1986. ‘From Milan to Magdeburg: The Place of the Magdeburg Ivories in Ottonian Art’, in Atti del 10 congresso internazionale di studi sull'alto medioevo, Milano 26–30 settembre 1983 (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo), pp. 441–51
24 When they came to Caperʹna-um, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the tax?” 25He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?” 26And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”