Small in scale but grand in impact, ivory sculpture starred in private collections throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, particularly in the courts of Central Europe, where the art form reached its apogee. The fine grain and lustrous texture of this exotic material permitted virtuoso carvers to extract maximum expression within the compact format prized for the intimate spaces of collectors' cabinets and church treasuries. The exhibition of more than one hundred works formed in ivory (and equally fine-grained boxwood), largely drawn from Museum storage, features freestanding sculptures as well as intricately carved armaments and a few lavish furnishings.
Ivory has been prized since antiquity for the creation of small sculptures. Responsive to the cutting of fine detail, it allows sculptors to realize great artistic and emotional expressiveness in a highly compressed format. The lustrous surface of polished ivory is enticing to the touch and well suited for works meant to be handled in the intimate environment of private devotion or the collectors' cabinets of the Late Renaissance and Baroque eras.
The use of ivory for important sculpture declined in the late Middle Ages, coinciding with the demise of the ivory trade between Europe and Africa following the Ottoman conquest of North Africa. European sculptors of small-scale works turned to boxwood, a medium that shares some attributes of ivory. Boxwood, native to the Mediterranean region, is dense, hard, and capable of being highly polished, with an even grain and structure that yield masterfully detailed carvings. The product of a shrubby plant, it can be sculpted only in relatively small pieces. Boxwood sculptures were prized by artists and collectors for their exoticism, rarity, and deep warm brown, often bronzy surface. Although the sixteenth century was the high point of boxwood carving, it still suited later Baroque taste and was often employed by the same artists who worked in ivory.
The renaissance of ivory carving between 1600 and the mid-eighteenth century stemmed from the renewed flow of the valuable material into the hands of European sculptors, following the opening of new maritime routes along the east and west coasts of Africa. This revival coincided with the development of the Baroque style, particularly in the Netherlands and Central Europe. Emperors and princely patrons there created court positions for ivory carvers. They and other wealthy, cosmopolitan clients supported the growing number of skilled workshops whose traditions spread throughout the area, influencing generations of sculptors.
Many artists who worked in ivory and boxwood also created monumental sculptures for churches and major civic spaces, but their small pieces are characterized by an intensity of expression that often eluded the larger works. Works commissioned for public spaces continued to be primarily religious in nature, while a growing circle of Humanist collectors were inclined to indulge a wider variety of subjects. Seeking art for display in the private arena of the Kunstkammer, they encouraged the creation of works inspired by the literature of antiquity or more recent history. As few small-scale sculptures are signed, scholars continue to try to identify the artists who made them by linking them to contracts, inventory records, and documented large-scale works.