Ivory is a precious raw material that was used for the creation of diverse objects in antiquity and throughout the entire Medieval period.

by Rachel Hiser Remmes

Ivory is a precious raw material that was used for the creation of diverse objects in antiquity and throughout the entire Medieval period. Part of the reason for its value is on account of its rarity. Ivory comes from elephant tusks, which were not easily accessible to much of the known world at the time. Ivory was often carved into objects that not only had aesthetic value but functional use; examples include combs, thrones, caskets, incense or makeup containers, and book covers. During the medieval period, ivory took on increasing symbolic importance because of its white color, which reflected the purity of the Virgin Mary.

As a medium, ivory provokes interesting questions with regard to the larger art historical discourse on form versus function. As noted, the medium was not simply admired but molded and carved to suit a particular economic or spiritual need. Artisans gave time and detailed attention to each of these objects not so that they would hang on a wall but be used by the ancient and medieval persons of their time. In our exploration of Medieval Materiality, this is a driving question; what does a given object signify on account of its medium. Medieval materials were important because they imparted something extra, something that exceeded the stories told by the figural or decorative images carved into them.


Further Reading:

Williamson, Beth. “Matter and Materiality in an Italian Reliquary Triptych.” Gesta (Spring, 2018): 23-42.

Koechlin, Raymond. Les ivoires gothiques français (Paris: Picard, 1924).

Barnet, Peter, ed. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997).

Bartolo di Fredi. Reliquary Triptych with the Annunciation, ca. 1370, tempera and gold leaf on wood with gold and polychrome ivory.

The Brescia Casket, second half of the 4th century, ivory, Milan, Italy.

Ivory Book Cover with Scenes from the Life of Christ, second half of the 5th century, ivory.

Christ Raising the Widow’s Son From the Dead, c. 962-8, ivory, Milan, Italy.

Comb with Lions and Geometric Designs, 6th-5th century B.C., ivory, Naples, Italy.

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