Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Ivory Carving in the Gothic Era, 13th–15th centuries

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  • Elephant tusks—exotic, rare, and characterized by a pearly lustrous surface, were prized in medieval Europe for carving into luxurious objects. From the eight to twelfth centuries, during the Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque periods, ivory was used largely in the creation of precious book covers; objects used in the service of the church, ranging from holy water buckets to oliphants to reliquaries; and ornamental plaques for ecclesiastical furniture. The supply of elephant tusks dwindled in the twelfth century, but when ivory reappeared in northern Europe in the mid-thirteenth century, artists and patrons quickly renewed the art of ivory carving. Instead of a revival of earlier forms, however, the Gothic period saw the revival of a new range of ivory object types: statuettes and statuette groups for the church or the private home; small paneled objects called diptychs (two panels), triptychs (three panels), and polyptychs (many panels) with scenes in low relief that unfold for private meditation; and luxury objects for personal use, such as combs, mirror backs, writing tablets, and caskets. The golden age of Gothic ivory carving spanned a century and a half, from about 1230 to 1380, at which point the supply of ivory to northern Europe again dwindled.


    Elephant tusks—exotic, rare, and characterized by a pearly lustrous surface, were prized in medieval Europe for carving into luxurious objects.

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    Material, Technique, and Trade

    Ivory tusks are the elongated upper incisors of elephants and are composed of a collagen-infused material called dentine. The ivory used during the Gothic period was primarily from the African Savannah elephant, and not from the smaller Asian elephant from the Indian subcontinent. Artisans aimed to maximize the use of high-quality dentine on the interior while avoiding both the hollow pulp cavity and the drier material on the exterior, called cementum. These natural factors, along with the tapering conical shape of the tusk, limited the possible shapes an artist was able to fashion from a tusk.


    The Parisian guild regulations, the Livre des Métiers, written by Étienne Boileau at the behest of King Louis IX in the 1260s, provides vital information about various craftsmen's trades, including ivory carving in the Gothic period. A specialized ivory-carving guild did not exist in the mid-thirteenth century, but a number of groups were licensed to sculpt images from a variety of materials, including stone, wood, ivory, and bone. From this we infer that the same carver might work in different media, adapting his skills as required. Courtly and ecclesiastical inventories of the period further record the possessions of institutions and individuals, allowing the identification of some specific objects in the pages of the past and providing a fuller picture of the place of ivory carvings among other types of luxury goods, such as textiles, illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, and sumptuous plate for the table.


    In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the ivory trade was closely linked to the international markets that supplied dyestuffs to the textile industries of northern Europe. In order to circumvent slow and costly land routes, Mediterranean merchants established a new bulk-shipping route in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. The Atlantic route directly from the Mediterranean to the English Channel through the Straits of Gibraltar carried not only bulk shipments of the essential color fixative, alum, but also a choice selection of precious goods from the Far East and Africa, including elephant tusks. The increasing supply of ivory made it the medium of fashion while also gradually lowering the price, so much so that by the turn of the fourteenth century personal toiletry articles could be made out of a material that had largely been the province of the church in Europe.


    Liturgical Use
    When elephant ivory reappeared on European markets, the first type of objects made were statuettes, predominantly of the Virgin and Child. The Virgin Mary was an appropriate choice, as the material of ivory itself connoted for the medieval mind purity and chastity, qualities associated with the Mother of God (Elizabeth: link to Cult of the Virgin). At first these independent statuettes were used liturgically, placed on the high altar on select feast days to honor the Virgin. An ivory Virgin and Child (now in the Louvre) mentioned in an inventory prepared between 1265 and 1279 at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris provides one point of reference for dating, while another in Avignon believed to have belonged to Cardinal Arnaud de Via (d. 1335) provides another. A statuette of the Virgin and Child (1999.208), carved by a leading Parisian master, originally sat on a metalwork throne, wore a crown of precious metal and stones, and might have been inserted into a micro-architectural tabernacle also made of precious metals. The fabrication of such examples was not limited to France, as elephant ivory was available wherever the textile trade routes extended. A stunning example attributed to England (1979.402), an area that produced the highest quality wool, demonstrates that ivory carving flourished in centers outside of France.


    Statuettes and low-relief plaques could also be arranged in elaborate tableaux to form permanent altarpieces. A group in low relief depicting the Deposition (17.190.199) was mounted sequentially with a number of other scenes recounting the Passion of Christ, from the Arrest to the Resurrection, to form a continuous frieze across the back of an altar.


    Despite these novel forms, not all ivory products in the Gothic period abandoned older traditions. Ivory corpora (1978.521.3; 2005.274), sculptures of the Crucified Christ, were either the centerpiece of multifigure Crucifixion scenes or were hung from the altar cross, which could be placed alone at the center of the altar. Croziers, the hooked staffs carried by abbots and bishops as a symbol of their pastoral office, had often been made of ivory and ivory substitutes since the early Christian era. Abbots and bishops in the Gothic era continued this tradition. A particularly fine example from the mid-fourteenth century (17.190.164) was made for an abbot, who joins Saint Denis in venerating the Virgin on one side of the crook, while the Crucifixion is depicted on the other.


    Devotional Objects
    Just as private Christian devotions often emulated communal liturgy, objects designed to enhance private prayer were frequently modeled on works of religious art. Most characteristic of this pattern are ivory polyptychs that seem to echo larger ivory statuettes in metalwork tabernacles in churches. Polyptychs (17.190.201) generally consist of a central panel with a Virgin and Child in high relief within an intricate micro-architectural framework. Hinged side panels with low-relief carvings usually depict complementary scenes from the Infancy of Christ. In a multipurpose space such as the bedchamber, the physical opening and closing of the polyptych allows the owner to demark sacred from secular time.


    In making the first Gothic diptychs (1970.324.7a,b) and triptychs (17.190.279a-e), patrons and artists apparently looked to the East for their prototypes, namely to Byzantine examples of the ninth to eleventh centuries. Gothic examples were carved with scenes from the life of Christ, though examples with scenes from saints' lives are also known. The folding-model of devotional object proved so popular and so effective at encouraging devotional prayer that innovations on the diptych format were tried. The rare quadriptych form (17.190.205) essentially doubled the length of a diptych, enabling more detailed telling of the sacred narrative. Similarly, devotional booklets (1982.60.399), with covers and "pages" all made of ivory, played on the booklike format of diptychs.


    Secular Ivories
    When elephant ivory was scarce and expensive, walrus tusks were frequently used as a substitute and their narrow form was ideally suited to making gaming pieces. Ranging from relatively simple to more elaborate figurations (17.190.231), the pieces are miniature reflections of the chivalric and bellicose society that produced them. Because the supply of walrus ivory was relatively continuous in northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages, the forms of gaming pieces are fairly consistent across the period that sees radical shifts in other areas of ivory carving.


    When the availability of ivory increased at the turn of the fourteenth century, it became feasible for everyday objects to be made out of the material. Ivory mirrors (41.100.160), combs, cosmetic vessels, and hair parters were frequently decorated with low-relief scenes from popular romances embodying the virtues of courtly love—a suitable ornamentation for objects that served an aristocratic woman's personal needs. Also popular were ivory caskets (17.190.173) adorned with similar scenes, such as the deeds of Lancelot, the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe, or the legendary mishaps of Aristotle at the court of Alexander the Great. The ivory boxes were probably originally given as emblems of affection and were used to store love tokens or jewels. The inventory of Clemence of Hungary, queen of France, conducted following her death in 1328, includes an ivory box with images, a comb and mirror set, and a chess set (as well as statuettes of saints).


    Late Devotional Diptychs
    The effectiveness and popularity of devotional diptychs promoted their continued production. In Paris, there was a turn to mass production of devotional diptychs, of both high and middling quality. One extremely popular luxury format was that of the Large Passion diptychs (50.195) produced in Parisian ateliers in the second half of the fourteenth century. A number of masters shared the same iconographic models and employed them in various permutations and combinations, from two scenes to twelve, enclosed by elaborate micro-architectural frames.


    In other European centers, local artisans quickly emulated fashionable Parisian exemplars. A diptych rich in imagery attributed to Cologne (1970.324.8a,b) must have been intended for an erudite patron. The ascendant or anagogical format of this diptych moves upward from the earthly to the heavenly. Though the patron is unknown, the object nevertheless gives us insight into the wide-ranging nature of religious devotion in the fourteenth century.


    The Waning of Gothic Ivories
    The geopolitical stability that enabled the flourishing of the textile industry and the ivory trade in the thirteenth century declined in the late fourteenth century. For a number of reasons, including economic crises, plagues, and new political entities disrupting trade routes, the supply of elephant ivory to Europe dwindled. The fashion for ivory, however, did not diminish and producers and suppliers alike eagerly sought replacements and substitutes for the market.


    Two tactics were employed. The first was to treat what little ivory was available as a precious stone or jewel (17.190.894). Small and thin roundels of ivory, mere centimeters round and millimeters thick, were carved in low relief, delicately painted, and mounted in metalwork frames for jewelry or on reliquaries. A second strategy, pioneered by the successful Italian Embriachi family, was to use bone, horn, hoofs, and wood to replicate the tonality of ivory carving. Although the Embriachi family primarily produced caskets decorated with tales from classical literature and medieval romances, a few very expensive altarpieces were commissioned for monastic foundations by prestigious donors (17.190.489), including Jean, duc de Berry, who presented one to the abbey of Poissy. In Central Europe, too, a similar tactic of using bone to reproduce the look of ivory was used to fashion parade saddles for aristocratic knights (40.66).


    The carving of ivory flourished again in the late fifteenth century when Portuguese merchant sailors extended European trading routes down the west coast of Africa into the region that is still known today as the Ivory Coast. This quickly replenished Europe's supply of tusks. The new ivory objects reflected contemporary tastes and religious developments, as demonstrated by a Man of Sorrows plaque from the Cloisters (1999.227). Although this object still fulfilled some of the same functions as Gothic ivories, the new cultural and economic context led to new and distinct commissions and uses of ivories.

    Sarah M. Guérin
    Hanns Swarzenski and Brigitte Horney Swarzenski Fellow 2008–2009, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art