Liberation of a Beleaguered City by Unknown Western Roman Empire artist

Unknown Western Roman Empire artist

Liberation of a Beleaguered City, c.400, Boxwood carving, 45.5 x 22.5 x 10.3 cm, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst der Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Inv. 4782, bpk Bildagentur / Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Jürgen Liepe / Art Resource, NY

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Be Strong and of Good Courage

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So rare is this high-relief wooden sculpture that it is impossible to be at all certain either of its provenance or original purpose. It was said at the time of its acquisition in 1900 to be from Egypt, but is associated with late-Roman Ravenna in current scholarship. It may have been part of a tiered series of narrative scenes, from which the other tiers are now missing. It is usually dated on stylistic grounds to the early fifth century (Von Törne 2010).

Joseph Strzygowski (1862–1941), who purchased the object for the new Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, was the first to note parallels for the figures visible here hanging on forked staves. They recall scenes of the execution of the Amorite kings (Joshua 10:26) that can be found on the Vatican Joshua Roll. Since then, although other possible historical interpretations of the scene have been suggested, a biblical interpretation remains the most likely.

Reading around the sculpture’s curved surface, we can follow the arrival on foot of the Israelites after their forced march. Joshua is perhaps the damaged figure in the middle register. The Gibeonites sallying forth to help him are also shown, as is the flight of the Amorites on horseback and the execution of their kings (just four, rather than the five mentioned in the text). More soldiers, shown small scale, man the walls, two taller figures stand sheltered within a city gate, and three monumental bearded figures loom protectively outside the walls.

These protective figures have been read as Christian saints, and there are certainly Christian references elsewhere on the relief—the leading foot-soldier carries a labarum, the standard popularized in the early fourth century by the Emperor Constantine. Origen, in his Homilies on Joshua, assimilates Joshua with Jesus, and presents the battle for Canaan as a spiritual struggle, the internal battle against the principalities and powers that incite to sin (Homilies 1.6). Presiding over but disengaged from the carnage below, the protective figures radiate a feeling of security and endurance, of confidence in the eventual outcome of the struggle. This is surely the core message of Joshua 10: ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong, and of good courage’ (10:25).



Origen. 2002. Homilies on Joshua, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 105, trans. by Barbara J. Bruce (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002)

Von Törne, Anna E. 2010. Stadtbelagerung in der Spätantike—das Berliner Holzrelief (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag)

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