Mirror case, courtly scenes.Paris, first third of the 14th century. Carved ivory.
Gothic Art Gothic art originated with the Gothic architecture which developed in France from about 1137 with the rebuilding of the Abbey Church of St Denis. the Gothic period coincided with a greatly increased emphasis on the Virgin Mary, and it was in this period that the Virgin and Child became such a hallmark of Catholic art. Saints were also portrayed far more often, and many of the range of attributes developed to identify them visually for a still largely illiterate public first appeared.
Secular works, often using subjects concerned with courtly love or knightly heroism, were produced as illuminated manuscripts, carved ivory mirror-cases, tapestries and elaborate gold table centrepieces like nefs. Ivory, often painted, was an important material until the very end of the period, well illustrating the shift in luxury art to secular works. Secular mirror- cases, caskets and decorated combs become common among the well- off.
Ivory Carving Elephant tusks— exotic, rare, and characterized by a pearly lustrous surface, were prized in medieval Europe for carving into luxurious object. 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.
Waning of Gothic Ivory 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.
Ivory as a Precious Stone The short supply of elephant tusks in northern Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries led patrons and artisans to treat ivory almost as a precious stone. The pierced micro-carving of small sections of ivory in addition to bright layers of polychromy and rich gilding emulated the precious ronde bosse enamels that were the height of fashion at the turn of the fifteenth century
Ivory Subsitutes In the late fourteenth century, the Embriachi workshop shrewdly stepped into a market eager for ivory and ivorylike products. By joining pieces of bone, flattened and carved in low relief, and surrounding the images with elaborate frames of inlaid wood, horn, and hoof, they created a product that satisfied contemporary tastes. Although the Embriachi family primarily produced caskets decorated with tales from classical literature and medieval romances, a few lavish altarpieces were commissioned for monastic foundations by prestigious donors.
Revival 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 Europes supply of tusks. The new ivory objects reflected contemporary tastes and religious developments, although these 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.
Christ, portrayed as at once dead and alive, is supported by Mary, his mother, and the apostle John. The flanking figures, witnesses to the Crucifixion, offer a model to emulate, during meditation and reflection on Christs suffering. The composition of this relief is based on an engraving by Martin Schongauer, one of the most influential artists of the fifteenth century.
Assault on the Castleof LoveAttacked by knights anddefended by ladies, was apopular subject for Gothicivory mirror-cases.Paris, 14th century.
As an Allegory ofLoveGothic mirror cases depicting twolovers typically show themconversing or hunting.Chess, as an intellectuallydemanding game ofstrategy, symbolizes courtly lovegoverned by precise rules.Opposed to chess in this respect isthe game of dice, symbolic of brutishdebauchery. The crown held behindthe woman by a servant, an allusionto the success that may crown theheros hopes, suggests the futureunion of the two lovers.
Courting Couples Youth chucking his lover underthe chin; lady holding a dog; ladyholding an object (flower?);buttoned sleeves; bird in a tree.Two compartments separated bya tree. Pointed trefoils in thespandrels.Museums opinion 2011:France, c. 1350-70.
Fountain of YouthOld and young; cripples; loverson the battlements; courtingcouples (meeting of lovers); mankneeling before a lady; ladyholding a dog; bird in a tree;horse-drawn cart; bathing.Corner terminals: two crouchingmonster; two hybrids.
Couples PlayingChessCourting couple (meeting oflovers); youth with a hawk on hiswrist; tent. France, 1st half of the 14thcentury.
Castle of LoveMeeting of lovers (courtingcouples); winged God of Lovethrowing arrows at lovers; ladycrowning a youth with a wreath;couple embracing; man andwoman on the battlements.Foliated corner terminals. France, 2nd half of the 14thcentury.
Alnwick CastleMermaid playing the harp;animals wrestling (lion andbear?); youth standing at a citygate; bird in a tree.London 1923: French, end of14th century.