In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Ivories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Trade Routes
  • Umayyad and Abbasid in the Central Islamic Lands
  • Fatimid
  • Ottonian

Medieval Studies Medieval Ivories
Sarah Guérin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0227


Mammalian ivory—from the enlarged incisors of a number of different types of land and sea animals—has been a prized material since the dawn of humanity. The dense, off-white material that composes mammoth, elephant, walrus, and hippopotamus tusks is relatively easy to sculpt, accepts fine details from the carver’s tools, and can be burnished to a soft shine. Throughout the Antique world, ivory, notably that of elephants and to a lesser extant hippopotami, was regarded as suitable for kings and emperors, and the status of ivory in the Roman and Sassanian Empires had a lasting influence on the diverse cultures of the Middle Ages. This article will consider medieval ivory carving from around the Mediterranean basin, all areas that shared the lasting influence of the Roman Empire. Mammoths having gone extinct 4,500 years ago, with the last populations surviving only in remote parts of Siberia, the great mammals were unknown to the Mediterranean world since at least 12,000 years before present (BP). Their modern cousins, the elephants (Asian and African species alike), enjoyed a much-wider distribution in the ancient world than their modern counterparts. The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, inhabited large parts of the Middle East in addition to the Indian subcontinent and the tropical Far East, as they do today. In Africa, Loxodonta africana roamed freely across North Africa due largely to the more verdant Sahara in the Early Holocene period, but environmental pressures (the onset of a dry period around 300 CE) and the dramatic impact of human populations (notably hunting for tusks) led to their extinction by the 4th or 5th century. During the medieval period, therefore, elephant ivory was more difficult to obtain than it had been previously under the Romans, and the vicissitudes of interregional trade routes thereby determined the availability of ivory around the Mediterranean and farther north into Europe. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) ivory, from the Arctic and Subarctic seas, was much appreciated in northern Europe and the British Isles throughout the Middle Ages and was a sought-after substitute for elephant ivory when the latter was in short supply. Similarly, whalebone was occasionally used as an ivory substitute because the larger pieces could approximate the breadth of African elephant dentine, but the more porous material was less amenable to carving and retained a matte surface.

General Overviews

Texts covering ivory carving in the Middle Ages have generally been aimed at a broad audience. Manuals written in the 19th century for collectors describe the forms, object type, and iconographies popular at each period, with little interpretative slant, as seen in Molinier 1896 and Maskell 1905. Gaborit-Chopin 1978 is a foundational survey of medieval ivories that significantly altered this tradition, and the author’s text includes a comprehensive narrative outlining the major issues and goals attendant to each chronological period, as well as complete catalogue entries for each object mentioned. Williamson 1982 and Caubet and Gaborit-Chopin 2004 are short surveys produced for the museum-going public. They are especially strong for a brief overview of technical aspects.

  • Caubet, Annie, and Danielle Gaborit-Chopin. Ivoires: De l’Orient ancien aux temps modernes. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2004.

    A current overview of ivory carving from the ancient world to the Early Modern period, drawing from the collections at the Louvre. It is aimed at a wide audience.

  • Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. Ivoires du Moyen Âge. Fribourg, Switzerland: Office du Livre, 1978.

    A comprehensive examination of medieval ivory carving in western Europe. Chapters cover the late Roman world, including east and west, the early Middle Ages in Europe, Romanesque ivories, and Gothic ivories until the mid-15th century. This volume remains a cornerstone of the field and is lavishly illustrated.

  • Grodecki, Louis. Ivoires français. Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1947.

    A short but synthetic look at ivories carved in western Europe, from the Late Antique period to the 17th-century carving at Dieppe. The pocketbook format brought ivory carving to the masses.

  • Maskell, Alfred. Ivories. Connoisseur’s Library. London: Methuen, 1905.

    The culmination of the 19th-century connoisseurial tradition. A good overview, though somewhat out of date, of ivory carving from the prehistoric period to the 19th century. The majority of the text, however, treats the Middle Ages. A chapter on ivory crosiers remains one of the best overviews of this little-studied form of ivories. Illustrated with prints and lithographs from a large number of public and private collections. Reprinted in 1966 and 1986 (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle).

  • Molinier, Émile. Histoire générale des arts appliqués à l’industrie du Ve à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Vol. 1, Ivoires. Paris: Lévy, 1896.

    Written by the first curator of the Objets d’Art department at the Louvre, a comprehensive chronological introduction to the art of ivory carving, conceived as inspiration for contemporaneous industrial processes. A luxury elephantine volume with over three hundred high-quality lithographs as well as in-text black-and-white illustrations.

  • Williamson, Paul. An Introduction to Medieval Ivory Carvings. Victoria & Albert Museum Introductions to the Decorative Arts. London: HMSO, 1982.

    An excellent short introduction to the subject, with particular emphasis on technique and links with other contemporaneous art forms. Examples largely taken from the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

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