Medieval ivory

Medieval ivory
Today we will see unique artifacts of the Middle Ages made of ivory. Well, let's start with this box with romantic scenes, ok. 1310–1330 It was made in Paris.
Dimensions: 10,9 × 25,3 × 15,9 cm, weight 1 g. Four scenes from left to right: Aristotle teaching Alexander, Phyllis riding Aristotle, lion tearing Thisbe's cloak, Pyramus' suicide; the top panel of the casket depicts the assault on the castle of love, with a tournament and knights shooting roses from a trebuchet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"And the king made a great throne of ivory
and overlaid it with pure gold."

10 Kings 18:XNUMX

Artifacts stories. Ivory products were known in the ancient world and even earlier. It was from ivory that the legendary Phidias made the bodies of the statues of Zeus and Athena. But at the beginning of the Middle Ages, people were not up to beautiful crafts. That is why, for some time after the death of the Roman Empire, bone carving in Europe froze. However, not for very long.

From the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth centuries, during the Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque periods of European history, ivory was again used as an excellent ornamental material. It was taken to make book covers, religious objects and various small crafts. For example, the pommel for bishop's crosier.

All this time, ivory was a great rarity. But in the middle of the XIII century, its influx to Europe increased, which immediately attracted the attention of artists to it.

Its front panel

Side panel. As well as the miniatures from the manuscripts, the carved panels of such caskets serve as excellent illustrations of what the knights of the XNUMXth century looked like.

The unicorn killing scene. The unicorn was supposed to fall asleep on the girl's lap, and only then did the hunter get it ...

Well, the top panel of this box is a real encyclopedia. Here are the knights fighting in the tournament, and the trebuchet shooting flowers ...

Back panel…

But instead of copying earlier forms, the Gothic period saw a number of entirely new ivory pieces. First of all, these were figurines and groups of figurines for a church or a private house; small bone-paneled panels called diptychs (two panels), triptychs (three panels), and polyptychs (many panels) with low-relief scenes that were unfolded for viewing in solitude; and luxury items for personal use in the home, such as combs, mirrors, and jewelry boxes.

The Golden Age of Gothic ivory carving lasted for a century and a half, from about 1230 to 1380, when supplies of ivory to northern Europe declined again.

Casket with scenes from the novel "Chatelain de Vergy": c. 1320–1340 Made in Paris. Material: ivory, modern wooden base. Dimensions: 7,9 x 21,6 x 10,2 cm. Lid: 21,6 x 10,2 x 1,3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ivory used during the Gothic period came mainly from the African bush elephant rather than the smaller Asian elephant from the Indian subcontinent. Craftsmen tried their best to maximize the use of high quality dentin, i.e. bone tissue itself, inside, avoiding both the pulp cavity and the drier material on the outside, called cementum.

These natural factors, along with the tapering conical shape of the tusk, of course, greatly limited the possible forms of products that the artist could create from the tusk.

Casket depicting warriors and mythological figures of Byzantine work of the 11,7th-43,8th centuries. The bone boxes that the Byzantines used in their homes were often decorated with antique motifs. In the Middle Ages, many of these caskets came to Western Europe, where they were used in churches as receptacles for relics. Material: bone plaques and decorative strips on wood; silver padlock. Dimensions: 18,1 x XNUMX x XNUMX cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Side panel

The rules of the Paris guild (Livre des Métiers), written by Étienne Boileau on the orders of King Louis IX in the 1260s, tell us about ivory carving in the Gothic period.

In the middle of the thirteenth century there was no dedicated guild of ivory carvers, but a number of groups were licensed to make images in a variety of materials, including stone, wood, ivory, and bone. From which we can conclude that the same carver could work with different materials, that is, he was a kind of universal carver.

Close-up image of a rider. The bone rods with which the plate was attached to the wooden base are clearly visible.

Another picture of a rider

End side of the casket with a lock

The side opposite the side with the lock...

Court and church records from that period allow us to learn about the existence at that time of specific objects made of ivory. For example, it could be covers for prayer books or a luxurious dinner plate.

In the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, the ivory trade went through the same markets that supplied dyes and spices to Northern Europe. In order to bypass the slow and expensive land routes, Mediterranean merchants in the second quarter of the XNUMXth century created a new route for mass transportation directly from the Mediterranean to the English Channel through the Strait of Gibraltar.

This route was followed not only by wholesale shipments of dyes and alum, but also by selected elephant tusks from North Africa. The increase in the supply of ivory made it a fashionable material, and gradually reduced the price of products from it so much that at the turn of the XNUMXth century it ceased to be the prerogative of the church and the nobility and became available to a fairly wide segment of the population. Now even cutlery handles are made from it.

Diptych with scenes of passion. Upper Rhine, ca. 1300. The religious nature of the booklet suggests that it served as an accessory for personal prayer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Well, which of them primarily made products for church needs? These were figurines depicting the Virgin and Child. The Virgin Mary was the most suitable choice for craftsmen and priests, since the ivory material in itself meant purity and chastity for the medieval mind, that is, qualities directly related to the image of the Mother of God.

At first, these figurines were placed on the main altar on certain holidays in honor of the Virgin. For example, a statuette of the Virgin and Child, carved by a Parisian master, is known, which at first sat on a metal throne, wore a crown of precious metal and stones on its head and was intended to stay in a tabernacle (a reduced copy of the temple), also made of precious metals.

The production of such sculptures was not limited to France, since ivory was available wherever there were trade routes for paints and textiles. Bone was used to make flat relief images of various biblical scenes telling about the passions of Christ, from the arrest to the resurrection, including the figure of the crucified Christ, which was usually the central element of the entire composition.

Right panel of a diptych, 17th century. France. Dimensions: 11x1xXNUMX cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The hooked staffs worn by abbots and bishops as a symbol of their pastoral ministry were also often made from ivory and its substitutes from the early years of the Christian era. And, of course, this tradition was continued by abbots and bishops in the Gothic era.

Martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Middle - end of the XIV century. Made in England. Material: ivory. Dimensions: 8,7 x 5,8 x 0,6 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The most characteristic items are also the ivory polyptychs, which usually consist of a central panel with a high relief of the Virgin and Child, surrounded by other panels with many smaller figures ... The fold-out side panels with bas-relief carvings usually depict additional scenes from the infancy of Christ.

Usually it was scenes from the life of Christ that were cut out, but examples are also known with scenes from the life of saints. In fact, it was something like carved from ivory ... a modern comic book, which could be looked at endlessly, each time enjoying the skill of work and remembering the Holy Scriptures at the same time.

This openwork ivory panel once served as the lid of a box. Details of the costumes on the four figures suggest that the box was made in France or England around 1400. Its lacy openwork composition, intricate architectural decoration and figural composition contrast sharply with the decorative repertoire of French ivory boxes made earlier in the 9,1th century, demonstrating the constant innovation of the ivory workshops of the late Middle Ages. Dimensions: 13,1 x 0,6 x XNUMX cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When ivory was scarce and expensive, walrus tusks were often used as a substitute, and their narrow shape was ideal for making dice and chess pieces. And since all the figures then basically depicted warriors, it is not difficult to trace the genesis of knightly weapons and armor from them, just like from miniatures. Since the supply of walrus ivory to Northern Europe in the Middle Ages was relatively continuous, therefore, the forms of such figures did not change for a long time.

Chess piece depicting a knight, c. 1250. Although the number of knights on horseback, that is, “horses” and bishops, is the same on the chessboard, for some reason more medieval chess pieces in the form of knights have been preserved. The figurine depicts a knight fighting a dragon, the symbol of evil. But due to the absence of a nearby princess in need of salvation, he could also be mistaken for St. George, who, according to legend, also killed the dragon. Probably made in London. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When, at the turn of the XNUMXth century, the availability of ivory increased, it became possible to make objects from this material: chess pieces, mirror frames, as well as combs and chests for cosmetics.

Ivory boxes became very popular, decorated with scenes such as the deeds of Lancelot, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, or the life of Aristotle at the court of Alexander the Great. Moreover, they were usually used to store signs of love or jewelry. An inventory of Clementia of Hungary, Queen of France, carried out after her death in 1328, includes an ivory box with images, a comb and a set of mirrors, chess (as well as statuettes of saints).

Disc with scenes from the attack on the Castle of Love, c. 1320–1340 The attack on the Castle of Love became a popular image in the 1320th century and is presented here with great care. Twenty-eight figures and five horses occupy the square in front of the castle. Above, the winged god of love prepares to shoot an arrow into the lower left corner. The castle is defended by women armed with roses, which they throw at the attacking knights. Some women greet the knights with gestures; and in the upper left, a woman offers the crown to one of the trumpeters, who will announce a playful duel to be held in front of the bars. Two armed knights, their shields adorned with roses, enter from the right to face their female adversaries. The third, having lost his shield and removed his helmet, gets on his horse to hug the woman in the window to the left of the entrance to the castle. The ivory disc is similar in size and shape to a 1340th-century mirror frame, but the reverse is uncharacteristically carved along the edge, suggesting that the disc may have been the lid of a round box. Date: ok. 14,1–1,2 Made in Paris. Diameter XNUMX x XNUMX cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But nothing lasts forever under the moon. The geopolitical stability that contributed to the prosperity of the textile industry and the ivory trade in the XNUMXth century, at the end of the XNUMXth century, primarily due to the plague, was replaced by a complete breakdown of trade routes and ivory supplies to Europe.

However, the fashion for ivory did not decrease: both manufacturers and suppliers were eagerly looking for a replacement for it. And now, as a material, they began to treat it very carefully. Small and thin medallions made of ivory, only a few centimeters in diameter and millimeters thick, came into fashion, which were carved in low relief, skillfully painted and inserted into metal settings for jewelry or reliquaries.

But there have been very successful attempts to replace it. In particular, the successful Italian Embriaki family began to use the most common bone, as well as a horn, to reproduce the tone of ivory carving, that is, in fact, they began to fake it. Although the Embriaki family mainly produced caskets decorated with scenes from classical literature and medieval novels, they also commissioned some very expensive altarpieces, one of which was commissioned by Jean, Duke of Berry, as a gift to the Abbey of Poissy.

Saddle, ok. 1400–1420 This is one of about twenty known medieval saddles decorated with bone plaques. Saddles vary somewhat in decoration, but some motifs are common to all. For example, St. George, standing over a defeated dragon, is depicted on most saddles. The bone plates used to create the saddle were most likely taken from the pelvic bones of large animals such as cows and attached to the saddle's wooden frame with bone pins and glue. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And the experience of forging ivory turned out to be so successful that even ceremonial saddles for aristocratic knights began to be made in this way.

However, ivory carving revived again at the end of the XNUMXth century, when Portuguese sailors laid trade routes along the western coast of Africa to the place that is still known as the Ivory Coast. This new transport route quickly replenished stocks of tusks in Europe.
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31 comment
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  1. +3
    24 June 2023 04: 18
    Thank you, Vyacheslav Olegovich! Beautiful.

    What only Aristotle did not go for the benefit of Alexander. And as a result - a comic scene for many centuries.

    I've been reading Linder's historical book about chess for a long time.

    But the color picture is now, perhaps, better perceived.
    1. +4
      24 June 2023 09: 36
      But at the beginning of the Middle Ages, people were not up to beautiful crafts. That is why, for some time after the death of the Roman Empire, bone carving in Europe froze.

      The matter is quite different. It was the logistics of trade routes and geopolitics that played a decisive role in the creation of medieval art objects from ivory. The states that controlled the main trade routes in the Middle East had the greatest access to all the tusks that were transported from Africa. This advantage was readily used by the Roman and Byzantine empires, as well as the countries of the Islamic world. The supply of tusks to Europe often depended directly on the relationship of Christian states with the changeable Islamic countries in the north of the African continent. Therefore, ivory was quite rare and valuable material for Europeans, except for the Gothic age, when it became more accessible.
      a photo. Rear panel of a mirror, Paris, 1325-1350.
      1. +4
        24 June 2023 10: 06
        No less popular ivory item than the box was pixida. This is a small box in the shape of a cylinder, which was closed with a small lid. Unlike the casket, the walls of the pyxid were solid, rounded, hewn from elephant bone, and had an additional base and a separately designed lid. Like caskets, pixides were also decorated with carvings on the outside and had a relief surface.
        a photo. Pyxida of ivory

        a photo. Left to right: Pixida al-Mughirs from Islamic Spain, 968. \ Pyxida of Zamora.
    2. +7
      24 June 2023 10: 13
      But the color picture is perhaps better perceived.

      This was already clear at the time. Therefore, ivory products were often painted.
      a photo. Gothic ivory diptych in full color.

      Greetings, Sergey hi
      1. +3
        24 June 2023 13: 56
        Greetings, Dmitry!

        Picture. And quite alive.
  2. +3
    24 June 2023 07: 00
    And they also made horns from ivory, in the sense of wind musical instruments. The horn of the legendary Count Roland had its own name, Oliphant. In most European languages, the elephant is called similarly to the English "elephant", so the version that Oliphant was carved from an elephant tusk is quite convincing.
    1. +4
      24 June 2023 10: 12
      The horn of the legendary Count Roland had its own name Oliphant

      Oliphant is not a proper name. This is a common name for an elephant tusk horn.
  3. +5
    24 June 2023 09: 44
    All this time, ivory was a great rarity. But in the middle of the XIII century, its influx to Europe increased

    And what caused the increase in the influx of ivory to Europe?
    1. +5
      24 June 2023 10: 54
      I will express my version, the expansion of Islam into West Africa and, as a result, an increase in trade between the regions.
      1. +4
        24 June 2023 11: 13
        About increasing trade between regions - to the very point. Only this was not due to the expansion of Islam, but to the development of the textile industry in Europe. Such, at first glance, unrelated things - textiles and ivory.
        1. +3
          24 June 2023 11: 29
          Hmmm... Maybe I'm missing something, please explain?
          1. +2
            24 June 2023 13: 46
            It’s hard to answer in a nutshell, especially from a smartphone away from home.
            In short, the booming textile industry consumed a lot of imported materials, including those from Africa, the same alum. That is, the freight traffic has increased significantly and has become profitable. And elephant ivory has become a profitable and convenient way cargo.
            1. +1
              24 June 2023 14: 55
              booming textile industry
              1. Now Vashchenko will shower you with "wet" rags!))))
              2. I built my version from my own (small, frankly speaking) knowledge about the medieval states of Africa, Mali, for example.
              1. +2
                24 June 2023 15: 41
                Quote: 3x3zsave
                throws rags!)

                By the way, he is absolutely right.
                1. +1
                  24 June 2023 16: 36
                  By the way, he's absolutely right.
                  Specify, "he" who?
                  1. +3
                    24 June 2023 19: 03
                    Quote from Frettaskyrandi
                    Specify, "he" who?

                    You are, of course, regarding the export of alum.
                    1. +1
                      24 June 2023 19: 19
                      No, Vyacheslav Olegovich, we are talking about the export of knowledge!
                    2. +2
                      24 June 2023 19: 21
                      Yes, I recently came across a rather voluminous article, just on the issue of increasing supplies of ivory, and this moment was remembered.
                2. -1
                  24 June 2023 17: 45
                  Oh wow! Such a staging theory is as vicious as the Marxist one! The Jews managed to step out of the tribal system into a post-industrial society! Bypassing all the crap that Vashchenko describes
              2. +2
                24 June 2023 16: 35
                Now Vashchenko will shower you with "wet" rags!

                Let's be frank, with all due respect, but you understand, this is not the level in medieval studies that can frighten me.
                1. +1
                  24 June 2023 17: 54
                  And what level in medeevistics can frighten you?
                  Le Goff, Favier, Roux, Mortimer, Togoeva?
                  1. +1
                    24 June 2023 18: 22
                    Wow, you listed serious, monumental figures. It would be interesting to discuss with them. They don't have unity there either. If you have the right sources at hand, you could fight. At least purely out of sporting interest.
                    1. +1
                      24 June 2023 18: 45
                      Wow, you listed serious, monumental figures.
                      They themselves are to blame. You set the level of awareness 5 years ago. For which I am grateful!
  4. +6
    24 June 2023 11: 08
    I was especially amused by the news that Zeus and Athena, the work of the great Phidias, are made of ivory))) the author imagines how much bone is needed for statues several meters high?))) They were covered with ivory plates to create the effect of human skin.
    1. +4
      24 June 2023 11: 19
      This is called chryselephantine - a wooden frame covered with thin carved ivory plates.
    2. +2
      24 June 2023 15: 43
      Quote: TermNachTER
      they were covered with ivory plates

      Did the article say that they were solid bone? The fact that they were covered with plates is even written in a textbook for grade 5 on the history of the Ancient World.
  5. +5
    24 June 2023 11: 14
    Thank you, Vyacheslav Olegovich!
    amazing story,
    Pyxids are a remarkable historical source.
    1. +2
      24 June 2023 19: 04
      Quote: Edward Vashchenko
      Thank you, Vyacheslav Olegovich!
      amazing story,
      Pyxids are a remarkable historical source.

      Thank you dear Edward. From you is especially valuable.
  6. +3
    24 June 2023 20: 53
    Vyacheslav Olegovich, forgive me!
    I can’t comment on your amazing articles, because everything is in the telegram. Loading into a case. When everything settles down, I'll read it.
    I happened to have carved gizmos, everything is in the past - the war, it is like that.
    In the meantime - like friends.
    1. +1
      24 June 2023 20: 57
      When everything settles down, I'll read it.

      As they say - do not put off until tomorrow, otherwise tomorrow may not be up to reading.
      1. +1
        24 June 2023 21: 16
        "Tomorrow" may never happen.

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