On the many occasions when they involve organic substances, investigations in material culture present an opportunity to remove some of the mysteries (and the mystification) that surround the study of historical objects. Particularly when the materials in question are substances such as fine woods and ivory, prized in the Middle Ages and no less today, inquiries of this sort offer sets of constants that, if duly recognized, allow us to understand the nature of these materials, the ways in which they were worked, and the reasons why they were esteemed.
If, for example, we look at a handsome baseball bat, made before the day when white ash was largely replaced by maple and aluminum, we can see that its concentric grain radiates across its full width of 7 cm and descends as a series of arcs that extend almost to the handle, nearly 103 cm away, at which point the grain again becomes more splayed (fig. 1). There are many differences between various woods and elephant tusks—in rarity, hardness, and the fact that the growth patterns of ivory are not expressions of annual increments—but the optical and tactile resemblances between these mediums enable us, in an age when (for good reason) ivory is becoming an ever less familiar substance, to appreciate its commonalities with the more widely diffused materials. Thus, before turning to ivories of the tenth century that, with their twentieth-century derivatives, are the main subject of this paper, we can recognize analogies between the grain of the baseball bat and that displayed on the back of the Christ child on his mother’s lap in a Gothic statuette now in Toronto, and even more dramatically on the grain of her left sleeve (fig. 2).1
These areas of visual emphasis are markedly more pronounced than those on the statuette when seen from the front (fig. 3), and this difference is surely no accident, for their selection by the sculptor corresponds with the manner of perception demanded of the viewer.
He or she is tacitly enjoined by the artist to turn the object around in order to read the narrative extension of the group as, on the back of the throne, it displays Herod’s order to massacre the innocents, a soldier plunging his knife into the back of a child, and the desperate plea of a woman as she tugs at the murderer’s tunic.
This sequence works of course by antithesis with the statuette when viewed in its “normal” position: the gaze of the Virgin at her son, who returns her smile even as he reaches playfully toward her neckline. Only the demonic beast beneath her foot alludes to the consequences and circumstances of this sacred conversation. There is more, however, to this image than the physiognomical demonstration of a loving exchange. Anyone toward the middle of the thirteenth century who knew the form of a carved tusk (and there were many more then than there are today) would have been aware that the zone inhabited by the demon on which Mary treads, and indeed the entire width of the statuette at its base, occupied the broadest part of the tusk. This proximal end was severed close to the point where it entered the elephant’s jaw and contains a hollow pulp cavity. The latter, in turn, is succeeded by the much narrower nerve canal leading to the distal end (the zone furthest from the jaw),2 where the ivory is often damaged and frequently, and in many instances, excised by the carver (see fig. 3; fig. 4).
But more important, and more evident to the sentient viewer, was the sculptor’s exploitation of the tusk’s natural curvature in order to evoke the Virgin’s inclination toward her son. Almost the entire length of the animal’s defense was used, although separate sections of material were employed to depict Mary’s right forearm and hand (and possibly those of Christ’s left), now lost but with their original situation marked by the surviving fragment of a dowel. That the full width of the tusk at this level was used is indicated by the almost vertical striations, akin in appearance to the sapwood of a sawn tree, on the sleeve of the Virgin’s right arm (see fig. 2). These represent the outermost layer of workable ivory, and occur just below the husk, an unusable carapace shown being stripped with an adze in a miniature in an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript in Venice (fig. 5).3
Once this bark has been removed, a sectioned and split tusk would offer on either side of the pulp cavity and the nerve canal dentine appropriate to the preparation of plaques. To these we can now turn, all the while looking for physical hints that can not only tell us about the craftsman’s techniques but also provide otherwise unknowable information concerning the material’s availability.
The best clue in this regard is the extent to which ivory of less than the highest grade was used, be it on plaques that on their reverses show traces of the pulp cavity, “ghosts” of the nerve canal, or, most common of all, the longitudinal striations that I have just mentioned. The shortage of high-quality dentine appears even in some of the finest Byzantine plaques where skill in workmanship was not thwarted by the lack of material of the highest order. Indeed, the former could go a fair way toward overcoming the latter, a proposition exemplified by the superb openwork plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum depicting John the Baptist, the protomartyr Stephen, and two apostles (fig. 6).
Between its striated vertical borders an almost diaphanous sheet of ivory (considerably thinner than the plaque’s varying thickness of 5 to 7 mm at its frame) supports a gossamer network of half-length portraits connected by delicate foliage, the constituent elements of which are themselves attenuated and pierced. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that parts of this interstitial tissue have broken off. Scarcely thicker than this leafy filigree is the central medallion, cracked, as is evident on the reverse, on either side of the nerve canal (fig. 7). Despite these injuries, the piece as a whole has recently and justly been described as “a masterpiece of technical virtuosity.”4
This particular slice of dentine is too thin to manifest the imbricated arcs of grain seized upon for their “modeling potential” by sculptors as far apart chronologically and geographically as Syria-Phoenicia in the eighth century BCE and Constantinople in the reign of Justinian I. On a famous ancient Near Eastern plaque in the British Museum, these ellipses serve to suggest the muscular structure of the lioness’s flanks, while the mass of the shoulder of its prey is conveyed by the whorl exposed by the sculptor at this point (fig. 8).
To the lay eye such processes in ivory seem to appear at random, but to the skilled workman, accustomed to producing panels from sections of tusk, they would have been fairly predictable lying, as they do on the lioness plaque, on the same plane. Thus, working from a mental scheme or a preliminary sketch, he could plan to take advantage of them. Perhaps the most impressive example of this sort of calculus is the Archangel plaque in the same museum (fig. 9).
Removing material plane by plane, the carver came upon processes that could be used, first, to suggest the spherical volume of the orb in the archangel’s right hand, then the rotundity of the cheeks before arriving at material the structure of which could be used to denote the tendons of the neck (fig. 10).
All these features, and others on the ivory, were heightened by polishing, the final phase in the craftsman’s handiwork. But an even more cogent example of this stage is the already-mentioned Baptist plaque on which the luminosity of the figures’ hair and foreheads is emphasized by burnishing these areas, as well as the clothes they wear, in contrast to the less reflective surrounding ground. The implication is that the saints glow with an inner light, a metaphysical idea well grounded in Byzantine thought, and a notion that would have been subverted had the figures been daubed with color instead of the occasionally noticeable, and limited, gilding of halos and some red-painted inscriptions.5
Far less disputable as a sign of an ivory’s antiquity than the extent of its coloration is the fact of its historical abrasion. Although only slightly more than half as hard as marble, and considerably less than that of hard stones and gems,6 ivory is among the hardest organic materials known. Nonetheless, as a result of touching or other sorts of human use, it will be worn down over time and thus incrementally lose the sharp forms imposed on it by an experienced sculptor. (In a moment we shall look at the forms achieved by a less than skilled carver.) The differential effects of wear are beautifully exemplified by an ivory medicine box at Dumbarton Oaks on the underside of which the figures have lost some of their former definition, and variously so in proportion to the object’s contact with a surface on which it was laid, or the palm of a hand that held it (fig. 11).7
The amount of rubbing they have undergone is obviously more than that of the figures on the lid, which, although they inhabit an external surface of the box, are to some extent protected by the projecting molded pull that rises above them (fig. 12). Of course we do not know how long this object continued to be handled—it could well have become a container for knickknacks long after its imagery ceased to have immediate meaning for its users—but the patterns of wear that it displays were surely arrested after it acquired “collectible” status and entered the glassy prison of some museum.
Changing iconographic significance may well be a factor in determining the stages in an ivory’s biography. Thus the abraded faces and emblems of office of the consul Justin on the leaves of his diptych of 540 are consistent with those of the emperor and empress in the medallions above him (fig. 13); it is clear that the latter have at some point also been recarved.8
Even more obvious is the reworking of the images of Christ between the sovereigns. Given sensibilities toward nuances in the representation of God, it is hardly likely that on one leaf his nimbus would originally have contained a cross (fig. 14) that is missing from the other.
As the painted inscriptions on the back of the diptych show, the object eventually entered into liturgical use. This could have been as late as the Carolingian era tentatively suggested by Delbrueck,9 but critical adjustment of the divine likeness smacks much more of sixth- or early seventh-century theological concerns than those of the ninth.
Whatever the occasion on which parts of the Justin were reworked, the physical traces of this procedure are unmistakable. Ivory is an unforgiving material and later interventions, no matter whether they involve inscriptions, figures, or their attributes and settings, are almost always recognizable. As against arrant, modern forgeries—a topic to which I shall come—the modification of otherwise perfectly authentic ancient pieces normally stands out. From the viewpoint of the connoisseur intent on detecting fakes this datum confers obvious benefit; it also has the advantage, as they say in Texas, of being true. Similar results, of course, may be obtained through carbon-14 testing, but this is both a destructive and an expensive process to which curators are understandably unwilling to subject objects in their care.10 But we do not always need science to tell us that something is awry. A case in point is an ivory that has been in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg at least since 1925 when the great curator Leonid Matsulevich put it into storage as a forgery (fig. 15).
It was discovered there by the present curator and introduced to the West in The Glory of Byzantium show at the Metropolitan Museum. In the catalogue entry, the author of which was the same curator, it was argued that the plaque, which depicts the Chairete (the Appearance of Christ to the Marys) and the Anastasis (the Resurrection), was an icon closely related to a diptych leaf in Dresden (fig. 16), first published in 1853.11
I looked at it for hours in the vitrine and came to the conclusion that it is a fake, an opinion later confirmed by hands-on study in Saint Petersburg. What was already evident in the showcase in New York was that the hinge cuttings for its attachment to another leaf are set into the front of the frame—a solecism unknown in Byzantium—rather than in its side, as on the Dresden piece.
But there is more to the problem than this technical departure. Immediately obvious is the difference between the softness of the carving and inscription on the Hermitage version12 and their counterparts in Dresden, where both the folds of cloth and the lettering are razor-sharp. Finally and most decisively, the back of the plaque in Saint Petersburg is smooth, creamy, and devoid of the cross on the reverse of the authentic piece (fig. 17).
Now, there is no a priori reason why one ivory cannot manifest the same iconography, and even similar physical attitudes and attributes, as another. But if it is a product of the same “workshop,” as the catalogue entry insists—refusing to countenance the fact that Byzantine ivories were carved by one pair of human hands rather than by the abstract conceptual entity called a workshop13—then why is there no trace of the image on the obverse? On the authentic leaf the risen Christ looms like a specter above the prostrate Marys through the ground of material sawn so finely that it is never more than 3 mm thick. Having had the piece in my hands, I offered my reading to the authorities in Saint Petersburg and presented them again in 2006 at the International Byzantine Congress in London. There has been no answer from the Hermitage. The rest is, as they say, (art) history.
It might be supposed that forgeries are created not always to make money but to demonstrate their makers’ pride in rivaling the masters of antiquity. That most often this is not so is suggested by the frequency with which they come on the market.14 Nonetheless, it must be recognized that not all copies are, or at least were, intended to be what are too sweepingly called “fakes.” First, copies were made for some aristocrats and financiers who wished to amplify their collections without descending to the hurly-burly of the art market.15 These are no more (and no less) fakes than the copy of the red damask wall-covering that J. Pierpont Morgan had made for the study of his library at Madison Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street in Manhattan, drawing on a hanging in the Roman villa of the fifteenth-century banker Agostino Chigi. More broadly, in Victorian Britain “improvement”—that is, the edification of a larger audience through the display of facsimiles—was a widespread impulse. In storage in the Metropolitan Museum is a version of the Baptist plaque that we have examined (see fig. 6), a copy (made without piercing or pupils in the eyes and in apparent ignorance of Greek) that Paul Williamson has suggested was based on a plaster cast (fig. 18).16 Indeed, in a handbook on such “fictile ivories” published three years after another such derivative entered the V&A, a cast of just this sort is listed.17
The making of fakes, like these more innocent versions, is a special sort of copying—replicas that aspire to the status of clones. A clone, however, depends on getting the basic zoology right, and on this score at least one example with which I am familiar fails miserably. An ivory Pantokrator shown to me by a dealer (fig. 19) is, on its face, a less than appalling copy of a plaque formerly in the Botkin collection and now in the Hermitage (fig. 20).
Many details of this exemplar were caught and replicated by the carver of the new version: the relation of the upper contour of Christ’s hair to the upright of the cross above him, and the curious double process in the auricle of his left ear. But he betrayed himself by enlarging Christ’s eyes and particularly in his desire to make the gospel book more convincingly plastic than it is in the original. The absence of the nerve canal and the narrower horizontal span of the cross that characterize the Botkin ivory are not in themselves errors. Variants of this sort are to be found on similar Christ ivories in both Cambridge and Paris18 Its undoing is instead a matter of technique, rather than of imagery or form. The carving is done across the grain, a procedure which, because it makes the sculptor’s task much harder, was eschewed by virtually every Byzantine ivory worker.19 The date stamped on the lower left border does not necessarily denote when the plaque was manufactured, but it is probably not far distant from that occasion.
In the end, then, we can return to the relatively neglected material aspects of carving in and around the two centuries specified in the title of this paper. Many, though not all, of the considerations that have occupied us above are subsumed in the final pair of ivories I wish to discuss, if only because the very absurdity of one version allows absolute certainty in determining that it is a poorly understood counterfeit of the other. In 2007 (and perhaps to this day) there existed in a private collection in Stuttgart a plaque measuring 8.6 x 4 cm and, at its maximum, 0.8 mm thick (fig. 21).
It purports to depict the Ascension, an intention made clear by its overall iconography and the inscription, ingeniously appropriated even while it inverts the order of Christ’s words of comfort to the apostles before he proceeds to Gethsemane. Generally in both these respects the icon follows the design of the tenth-century lid of a box that, ironically, is also in Stuttgart (fig. 22).20
An initial glance at the two objects suggests that they are remarkably similar. But closer scrutiny reveals the considerable differences between them. First, the area of the box lid (16.2 x 8.8 cm) is almost exactly twice as large as the icon—a circumstance that could suggest that it is a product of the copying device known as a pointing machine, in use since at least the sixteenth century. Such an apparatus, however, would not allow the conversion of a seated Christ, as on the museum’s ivory, into a standing figure, and would not explain why the Lord is shown frontally instead of turning his head slightly to the side as in most Byzantine representations of the biblical event. No less obvious is the absence of the book and the quite different disposition of Christ’s left arm. Each of these divagations from the normal iconography of the Ascension suggests that the plaque is instead based upon some version of the Last Judgment.
Whatever the source, it is clear that for the uppermost third of the plaque the carver did not draw directly on the box in the Landesmuseum. But in the larger portion there are also deviations. Acting like many another modern forger, the sculptor sought to improve upon his model by restoring parts that had broken off, notably the trunks of several of the trees and the forearms of the apostles in the lower right corner who now look as if they are about to embrace or engage in a boxing match.21 Between the “Last Judgment” zone above and the more Ascension-like scene below occurs the first of several technical departures from the museum’s box lid. The inscription, painstakingly carved in relief, that rises from the ground in the tenth-century ivory now appears on a projecting block that made the modern carver’s work less arduous. And although he was aware that the backs of many ivories, as we have seen, display the concentric ellipses that I have noted above (or a trace of the nerve canal),22 he relinquished any attempt to render the foliate border that separates the top of the box lid from its sides. Instead, he produced a simple molding that rises above recessed flanges on three sides of the plaque. On the outside of the uppermost molding (and therefore invisible in the photograph) there are incised what could be three (modern) Greek letters (deltas?) or parts of a zigzag pattern. I know of no equivalent on any ivory. In retrospect, the absence of a frame is less heinous an offense than is the pulpy, largely undifferentiated form of the figures, carved, as is the Metropolitan’s copy of the Baptist plaque at the V&A, from a slender and therefore bowed section of tusk. From a Byzantine craftsman’s point of view, to spend time working such material would have been nonsensical, like many of the forgeries we have considered. “Nonsense,” it has been observed, “is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.”23
Anthony Cutler is Evan Pugh Professor of Art History at Penn State. He is one of the United States’ foremost Late Antique and Byzantine specialists and an international authority on ivory carving. Currently, he is working on larger problems of exchange between Byzantium and early Islam. He was recently elected Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University for 2011–12.
- 1. John Lowden and John Cherry, Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto: Skylet Publishing, 2008), 46–49, no. 14.
- 2. Commenting on this statuette in an earlier online version of this article, I charged John Lowden with mistakenly suggesting that the end of the nerve canal occurs at the Virgin’s chest rather than the tip of the tusk. Sarah Guérin, who has since studied the ivory outside the case, tells me that Lowden is indeed correct. This phenomenon would appear to be a freak of nature, unparalleled in my experience. I retract my statement, apologize to Prof. Lowden, and thank Dr. Guérin for the correction. One advantage of this form of publishing is that it enables this sort of Wiki scholarship.
- 3. For further discussion, see Anthony Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200–1400 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985), 38.
- 4. Paul Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings: Early Christian to Romanesque (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010), 108–11, no. 24, to whom I am grateful for additional information concerning the plaque’s thickness.
- 5. As suggested of many other plaques and boxes by Carolyn L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998). On this ongoing question, see the review by Anthony Cutler, http://www.caareviews.org, and more recently by Carolyn L. Connor, “Color of Late Antique and Byzantine Ivories: Problems and Challenges of Conservation,” in Spätantike und byzantinische Elfenbeinbildwerke im Diskurs, ed. Gudrun Bühl, Anthony Cutler, and Arne Effenberger (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2008), 31–36.
- 6. See Mohs’s scale of hardness, available at: http://www.solitaire.com.sg/knowledge/mohs_scale.html and http://goldgemstonerings.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=CTGY&Store_Code=PSR&Category_Code=infomohs.
- 7. Following Kurt Weitzmann, John Hanson, in Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections, ed. Gudrun Bühl (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), 52–53, identifies the figures as Dionysos, a maenad, and a satyr, the first of these being associated with death and resurrection, and thus (vaguely) appropriate to a medicine box, and that on the lid as a tychē (“good fortune”). Hanson does not remark on their relative wear patterns.
- 8. This was first observed by David H. Wright, “Shrapnel from the Blockbusters,” University Publishing 11 (Spring 1981): 23. More specifically, one notices that, beyond the Christ images discussed below, the crowns, necklaces, and jeweled collars of Theodora are of quite different types.
- 9. Richard Delbrueck, Die Consulardiptychen und verwandte Denkmäler (Berlin and Leipzig: De Gruyter, 1929), 153.
- 10. For an honorable and rare exception see Paul Williamson, “On the Date of the Symmachi Panel and the So-Called Grado Chair Ivories,” in Through a Glass Brightly: Studies in Byzantine and Medieval Art and Architecture Presented to David Buckton, ed. Chris Entwistle (Oxford: Oxbow, 2003), 47–50, and idem, “Radiocarbon Dating of Selected Ivories,” in Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 454–55. There are obvious limitations to the utility of carbon-14 dating. Apart from the fact that such analysis yields only an approximate date for the death of the elephant, rather than for that when its tusk was carved, it is worth noting that not all modern restorers employ recent materials. In the course of the twentieth century craftsmen at Pompeii used ancient human femurs to make replacement hinges for ancient furniture. See Estelle Lazer, Restoring Pompeii (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2009), 104–5 and fig. 5.2.
- 11. Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Period A.D. 843–1261 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995), 147–48, no. 93 (Vera Zalesskaya).
- 12. Carvings in walrus ivory and bone sometimes show a similar mushiness. See the detail photos in Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 454, 456. Underlying my analytical method generally is a principle akin to that of Giovanni Morelli: I attend to features apparently unconsidered by the craftsman, thus producing effects that are meaningful not because they are intended but because they are not.
- 13. For a critique of the notion of ivory workshops on Byzantium, see Anthony Cutler, The Hand of the Master: Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (9th–11th centuries) (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 66–73.
- 14. On average I receive via the Internet one set of images every six weeks from some sanguine dealer or collector.
- 15. For two such collectors see Anthony Cutler, “Nineteenth-Century Versions of the Veroli Casket,” in Entwistle, Through a Glass Brightly, 198–209.
- 16. See note 4 above. On the object itself see Fakes and Forgeries (Minneapolis, Minn.: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1973), no. 45.
- 17. John O. Westwood, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Ivories in the South Kensington Museum (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1876, 85), no. 189.
- 18. Cutler, Hand of the Master, 108–9, figs. 117, 118.
- 19. For two of the very few examples of this approach, see ibid., 15, 83, and figs. 9, 86.
- 20. On this box see, most recently, Anthony Cutler, “Mistaken Novelty: Problems of Ivory Carving in the Christian East (12th and 13th Centuries),” Biuletyn Historii Sztuki 70 (2008): 271–75.
- 21. Similarly, the third apostle from the left in the lower row has been endowed with what looks like a bundle of firewood (the epistles of Paul?).
- 22. Some forgers now seem to pay attention to the form of the reverses of ivories, usually ignored in photographs and descriptions in older catalogues. I published a number of these in The Hand of the Master (1994), which leads me to believe that the Stuttgart plaque may be a forgery of quite recent vintage.
- 23. The words of Saul Lieberman commenting on the work of Gershom Sholem. See Jacob Neusner, Neusner on Judaism: Religion and Theology (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005), 91 note 9.