March 5, 2011

At the Met: Ivories

Situla (Bucket for Holy Water), carved 860-80 in northern France; Ivory with gilded copper-alloy mounts and foil inlays.

The medieval galleries at the Met are full of treasures large and small and I'm always discovering something new there. I recently wrote about Medieval Mourners, deeply emotional sculpture; on this trip my attention was caught by several small works in ivory, wondrous in their imaginative form. A section of elephant tusk was hollowed out to create this little bucket, carved with scenes from the life of Christ. I find the simple yet dynamic forms totally engaging, turning narrative into graceful design.

Two Ivory panels with Saints Peter and Paul, carved 500-700; Frankish, northern Germany.

These two panels seem Byzantine to me in the stylized lines of drapery and the drawing of the heads, even though they come from northern Europe. Perhaps the lines of influence traveled north. I love these figures, how they seem light, as though they are dancing toward each other.

Ivory plaque with Christ receiving Magdeberg Cathedral from Emperor Otto I; carved about 962-68, probably in Milan.

I find this piece completely amazing. The delicate sophisticated carving gives us individualized portraits of Christ and saints with the small figure of the Emperor. The pierced grid behind the figures contrasts beautifully with the organic forms of figures and the round wreath(?) and curved footrest.

Ivory casket (detail); carved about 1000-1100; South Italian.

More charming details abound in this detail of a small casket showing hunting scenes with fanciful animals and decorative surrounds. Notice how the pattern of the hunter's clothing crosses his body in neat diagonals, and on the fierce standing figure in verticals.

Walrus Ivory Game Piece with Hercules throwing Diomedes to his Man-Eating Horses; carved about 1100-1150; German, Cologne.

It's such a gruesome subject, but what wonderful carving! The texture on the dogs (these don't look like horses to me) playfully converses with the larger zigzag and circles of the border, which makes it easy to overlook the narrative content.

Ivory Plaque with the Evangelist Saint Mark and his Symbol; carved 1000-1100, probably in Cologne.

This is another delightful small plaque. I find the forms of the church buildings particularly interesting here, with the balls atop the towers almost like onion domes.

Ivory Virgin and Child; carved about 1250; North French.

There is less sculpture in the round in ivory to be seen at the museum, and I was totally taken with this piece. The soft, tender gesture of the child reaching up to touch his mother, her gentle grasp of his foot, and her loving smile make this work a celebration of the earthly mother-child bond, not only a religious expression.

Plaque (detail); 10th to early 11th century; carved ivory with quartz insets and traces of pigment; Spain (Al-Andaluz).

This plaque, so different in character from the preceding works, is found in the Middle Eastern cases of the museum. Al-Andaluz was the name given to the Iberian peninsula during the rule of the Muslims, and this work reflects that different culture. It is purely, extravagantly decorative, with marvelous beasts and humans, and intricate minute carving. The warmth and beauty of ivory as a carving material is evident in all these small artworks.


  1. All of these are great! your selection and comments are too.
    Hercules throwing Diomedes to his man eating dogs/horses, the casket with the directional patterning, the final plaque.
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks so much, Alicia; I'm really glad you enjoyed seeing these wonderful objects.