Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.
So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.
Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.
On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.
The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.