“ The very material of Ivory is intriguingly attractive: it is a rare, exotic, sensuous, smoothly fine-grained substance.” (Barnet)
Ivory was carved by artists formally called Eborarii typically on Elephant tusk and bone. Because their art was highly prized among the wealthy class, they were often exempt from civil obligation.
Tools the artists used include axes, or chisels to remove the outer layers, from the tusk. A bow saw cut the trunk of the tusk smaller pieces and a tool called a float was used to cut on the surface. Lastly, hand chisels, fretsaws, and gauges were used to sculpt the details of a piece.
Above is a collection of average tools used to sculpt an ivory figure.
Ivory originally dates back to ancient times but was not popularized until the 4 th -6 th centuries in the Byzantine Empire during a point of political, religious, and social change.
Ivory tended to go in and out of style, dependent upon an area’s financial and social status. The 8 th and 9 th centuries brought a resurgence in West Europe during the reign of Carolingians. Although, due to Iconoclast the desire for ivory was severely dampened.
10 th -12 th centuries – Ivory popularity picks up again with a restoration of trade routes and economic stability so that people are more willing to buy extravagant things. One of which was the Ottonian Royal family who commissioned for numerous ivory plaques for their newly built cathedral. The origins of the Virgin w/ Child sculpture are also during this time.
Regardless of the pick up in trade, very little ivory could be found in Constantinople. The trade routes go straight from Africa to W. Europe and skipped the city. Commerce was created with the Arabs in N. Africa and the clientele open up to Islamic, Byzantine, and western styles.
Image of an African Elephant being hunted in Africa for it’s ivory tusks and bone.
African Ivory is available through Mediterranean trade.
Paris is the center of ivory production from 1300 to the end of the Gothic era. Workshops in this area as well as other areas flourished with urbanized growth.
The Crusades resulted in the establishment of Latin forces in the East Mediterranean and into Asia such as Marco Polo. It also created active trade routes from South East Africa through Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
14th century – Production increases and is standardized. Composition becomes less detailed and more iconic.
15th century – Ivory in France no longer flourishing because of the diminishing economy. Conflicts to blame include famine, plague, and the 100 Years’ War. All of this also effects the spiritual well-being of the population and is a cause for less secular items and more personal items.
Paris throughout the entire Gothic era was the prominent location for Ivory workshops.
Primarily used for the Burgundian court and started the popularity of the Virgin tabernacles.
There was a rise of powerful families which led to a great increase for all art forms including metalwork and painting.
Embriachi Workshop - Embriachi was apart of a family of artists and businessmen. While the exact location of the Embriachi workshop is unknown, it is known to have been somewhere in Venice.
North and Central Europe
Non-secular objects flourish. Popular items found include chess pieces, mirror frames, saddles, and game boxes.
An ivory mirror case titled “An Elopement” (sometimes called “Lancelot and Guinevere”) from the French Gothic era in the 14th century. An ivory tabernacle which can now be found in the Louvre in France.
Diptychs were given often as a gift to friends who obtain a new and higher ranking within the empires civil ranking hierarchy.
One of earliest found was a gift to Probus who rose to western consulate in 406.
The Barberini diptych was a single 5-part tablet which represented the “imperial” victorious emperor receiving victory from vanquished foes. It was one of the first ivories to show narrative sequences.
A last diptych from a time before the Gothic Era was the Symmachi–Nicomachi diptych similar to the Barberini diptych in terms of it’s function, it was used commemorate a marriage.
Many were issued and gifted all throughout the Gothic Era. Typically different styles represent different rankings.
Symmachi–Nicomachi Diptych The Diptych for Probus The Barberini Diptych
The Virgin and Child was one of the most frequently sculpted figurines in ivory ever.
The general stance for almost every statue shows the virgin at a slightly curved position as if she is trying to support the child. She holds Christ in the left arm and offers him a flower from the right. Her skirt is caught up at the waist making a series of deep folds draping from the right hip.
Countless copies have been made all across the world and are frequently found in cathedrals and churches worldwide. Notable places include Notre Dame, the cathedral of Amiens.
The Sainte Chapelle in France statue – sculpted for the royal chapel for Louis IX in 1248 which can now be found at the Louvre.
Other items frequently made were chess sets, caskets, boxes, plaques, and crosier heads.
Brescia Casket – another one of the earliest ivories sculpted. It shows scenes from new and Old Testament, which shows how later secular or pagan themes were hardly restricted. While some show the life of Christ, many follow the format of secular work.
There was a constant mix of holy and imperial works such as with those of the Ottonian Empire..
On the left is an old ivory chess set. To the right of that is the St. Nicholas Crosier . Above is the Brescia Casket.
Book covers, altars, plaques tend to disappear in later Gothic Periods. As books become a personal item rather than something just read in a church service, the heavy covers became unpractical because they cannot fit well in a book case. There were more books now too that were not used for religious purposes alone.
Portable sculpture – It was considered luxurious decoration by aristocrats and bourgeois families. Private devotion becomes more widespread and small items were needed. Infancy and Passion of Christ were two popular items found for religious items and Images of people playing chess, hunting, and leisure activities were found for secular items.
Sculptures of Saints also began to appear as people began to wane away from the church during times of economic and political strife.
A well-preserved sculpture of a saint. Much of the paint still remains and the only visible ivory can be found on the figure’s face and skin.
With an emergence of secular images and a rise of chivalry and courtly love came a rise of romantic novels.
Below is an excellent example of a casket that displays both literary examples and secular motifs which can now be found in the British Museum of Art.
On the front the Greek philosopher Aristotle teaches a young Alexander the Great the importance of studying and how to be wary of women. The second visible scene shows figures bathing in the Fountain of Youth. At one end of the casket which cannot be seen in this photograph, Tristan and Isolde are spied upon by Isolde's husband, King Mark.
The emergence of art was in constant flux all throughout the Middle Ages. As Different political, social, and economic changes occurred, so did the styles, mediums, and consistency of art creation.
At the same time ivory production began to rise in Italy with the Embriachi workshop for ivory there was also a rise of painting and metalwork.
To the left is the figure of the Virgin and Child which is typically depicted in Ivory. But as seen here, regardless of art forms increase or decrease in popularity, the styles and ideas always remain constant.
As noted earlier, one of the most famous workshops was the Embriachi workshop in Venice. Workshops continually appeared and disappeared as the want and need for ivory increased and decreased. During the 13 th century when western Europe began to have quicker access to ivory due to trade route establishment and good economic well-being, workshops flourished in this area, particularly in Paris.
One negative impact from workshops is that ivories began to loose their unique qualities. If statues are being mass-produced to sell to the public, artists will consistently make the same model. Some believe that because of mass production the market was saturated, ivory lost it’s novelty and is a reason that the purchase of ivory declined so quickly during the later part of the Gothic Era.
Also, because ivory was so highly demanded, pure elephant ivory was much harder to obtain. Artists reverted to Walrus tusk and bone, which eventually led to the near-extinction of the animal.
Barnet, Peter. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
“ Ivory casket with scenes from the Romances.” The British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/i/ivory_casket_with_scenes_from.aspx (accessed October 29, 2008).
St Aubyn, Fiona. Ivory: An International History and Illustrated Survey With a Guide for Collectors . New York: Harry N Abrams, 1987.
The Encyclopedia of Sculpture Vol 2 . Ed. Anonia Bostrom (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004). "Ivory Sculpture: Early Christian-Romanesque."
The Encyclopedia of Sculpture Vol 2 . Ed. Anonia Bostrom (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004). "Ivory Sculpture: Gothic.“
Williamson, Paul. Gothic Sculpture, 1140-1300 (The Yale University Press Pelican History of Art) . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.