Gothic Ivories: Content and Context

Jointly organised by The British Museum and The Gothic Ivories Project at The Courtauld Institute of Art, this event followed on from the successful 2012 conference Gothic Ivories: Old Questions, New Directions (Victoria & Albert Museum and The Courtauld Gothic Ivories Project). In a timely manner, it coincided with the publication of some of the papers given at the 2012 conference in the form of a special issue of The Sculpture Journal. The conference was a celebration in many respects: celebration of the achievement of the Gothic Ivories Project, which, launched on the web in December 2010, has now been working with over 350 repository institutions around the world to make nearly 4,000 ivory carvings available online, celebration of the publication of the landmark catalogue of the Victoria & Albert Museum Gothic ivories and Embriachi collection by Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings 1200-1550 (London, 2014), and celebration of a new wave of research being conducted on the topic, following the pioneering work of Danielle Gaborit-Chopin, Neil Stratford, Charles Little, Richard Randall, Peter Barnet and Paul Williamson.

The involvement of the British Museum in this conference also heralded the beginning of new research on the BM collection, conducted by Naomi Speakman, which will lead to a new catalogue, updating the work done by Ormonde Dalton in 1909 (O. M. Dalton, Catalogue ofthe Ivory Carvings of the Christian Era in the British Museum, London, 1909). Showcasing new research on Gothic ivory sculpture and Embriachi pieces, papers explored a wide range of topics. One of the overarching themes was the importance of considering ivory carving in the wider context of the artistic production of the period. Paul Williamson launched the conference by exploring the relationship between ivory carving and manuscript illumination c. 1400 in Paris, focusing on a group of richly-coloured openwork carvings stylistically related to the work of the Rohan Master, an illuminator active in Paris and responsible for the eponymous Rohan Hours. Geoffrey Rampton examined the potential relationship between a fragment of a triptych now in the Wallace Collection and the work of Parisian illuminator, Jean Pucelle, while Catherine Yvard considered the parallels that can be drawn between the arts of the book and ivory carving, in terms of function, use and iconography, exploring in particular the impact of prints attributed to the ‘Ypres group’ on the production of a large number of ivories in the late 15th-early 16th century.

Relationship with monumental sculpture was also under scrutiny. Emily Guerry offered to relate the appearance of the motif of Christ crowned with thorns in ivory to the iconography of the now-lost West portal tympanum of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, while Carla Varela Fernandes put forward the hypothesis that ivory carving may have served as a source for some of the compositions adorning the tomb of Lady Inês de Castro, in Alcobaça, Portugal. Ingmar Reesing examined the interesting case of an ivory pax, now at the British Museum, for which a contemporary cast in clay as well as its original mould have survived and are now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; his stylistic analysis of another ivory pax in the Rijksmuseum converged with Catherine Yvard’s findings regarding the impact of Parisian prints at the time. This was brilliantly complemented by Katherine Baker’s discovery in the Paris archives of a fascinatingly detailed early 16th-century inventory of the content of a Parisian mercer’s house, complete with a ‘chambre aux dents d’ivoire’. The question of context was further explored by Ileana Tozzi, in relation to Italian ivory croziers, and by Lydia Chávez, who reconsidered the Grandisson group. Christian Nikolaus Opitz brought to light precious, and hitherto unpublished, mentions of ivory carvings in medieval inventories from Austrian monasteries, while Sarah Guérin examined the production of the so-called ‘workshop of the death of the Virgin’. Marta Kryzhanovskhaia sought to elucidate the puzzling iconography of two 14th-century writing tablets now split between Budapest and Saint Petersburg.

Stephen Perkinson questioned the meaning of ivory carvings with memento mori themes in the 16th century, showing that these carvings display an advanced knowledge of human anatomy. Jack Hartnell also tackled matters of flesh and bone, but from the point of view of the symbolic meaning of the use of ivory in the case of a surgeon knife handle now in the Natural History Museum in London.

Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antoine, each teaming up with restorer Juliette Levy-Hinstin, adopted similar approaches to two artworks, respectively the so-called Martin Le Roy Virgin now in a private collection, and the Louvre group of the descent from the cross completed by the recently discovered Saint John the Evangelist and Synagoga. Based on close examination, they were able to put forward hypotheses regarding the fates of these artworks through the centuries.

Michele Tomasi, Glyn Davies and Monique Blanc discussed the state of research on Embriachi, calling for an ‘Embriachi Project’, which would allow similar access to these pieces as now exists to Gothic (and neo-Gothic) ivory carvings.

Finally, a large number of papers looked into the assembling of collections in the modern period. Franz Kirchweger discussed the fascinating and hitherto unknown illustrated catalogue of the collection of Clement Wenceslas, Count of Renesse-Breidenbach (1776-1833), and the practice of ivory casting in the 19th century was explored by Benedetta Chiesi, in relation to an album of photographs by John Brampton Philpot (1812-1878). Naomi Speakman, Lars Hendrikman, Camille Broucke and Robert Gibbs focused respectively on the collecting practices of William Maskell, Willem Neutelings, Paul Thoby and Sir William Burrell.

Given the quality of the contributions, a publication of selected papers is currently envisaged by the organisers.

With one more year to go of intensive work, the Gothic Ivories Project will bring the number of objects online close to 5,000, with the whole corpus of known Gothic and neo-Gothic ivory sculpture available online. After July 2015, the project will go into maintenance mode with regular updates and additions. Part of the plan is to also continue holding a biennial conference to showcase discoveries and pursue the discussion.

The Gothic Ivories Conference was held at The Courtauld Institute and The British Museum, London on 5th-6th July 2014

Main image: French (Paris), 14th Century, Diptych (detail), The Adoration of the Magi, ivory 195 × 215 mm. (photo: © The Courtauld Gallery 2009)

July 2014 Conference Full Programme 
Gothic Ivories Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art
Search tips to make the most of the Gothic Ivories website 
Table of contents of The Sculpture Journal 23/1

Aurora Corio