The Magdeburg Ivories
With his coronation as king of the Germans in 936, Otto I, a duke from Saxony, set about restoring the Christian empire that Charlemagne had founded in the previous century. Like his predecessor, Otto had himself crowned emperor by the pope in Rome in 962, thereby becoming ruler of the lands from Germany to central Italy. The 973 marriage of his son Otto II (955–983) to the Byzantine princess Theophano (960–991) achieved long-pursued ties with the Eastern empire of Byzantium. The Germanic rulers wisely used the church as an ally in their patronage of the visual arts. Under Ottonian rule, churches and monasteries produced magnificent illuminated manuscripts, imposing buildings, and sumptuous luxury objects intended for church interiors and treasuries.
Among these, carving in ivory could express the monumental. Fitting into the palm of one’s hand, the “Magdeburg ivory” (41.100.157) is one of the paramount masterpieces of medieval art to convey this tendency. The panel is also a critical window onto the artistic creativity of Europe around the year 1000. Its overall conception and superb quality of carving captures the imagination with its transcendent power set against a geometric ground, enhancing its otherworldly purpose. Precious in scale and exquisitely rendered, it is, in fact, a compelling power image where royal authority and purpose in the presence of Christ is given new form. The “Magdeburg ivory,” and the associated group of reliefs, constitutes the first key monument of Ottonian art.
How did the master carver do it? The geometrically reduced figures are placed before a perforated checkerboard field in a broad, flat framed space, possibly intended to signify infinity. The cubic reduction of the figures actually enhances their physical presence, presenting a clear tendency toward purification and clarification of form and content that, in turn, produces an increasingly abstract and monumental quality.
What can be grasped from this work of art of a millennium ago that is relevant to our understanding of Europe at this time? Its cosmic, timeless quality possesses a message of a world dominion in Christ. Dominating the composition is a centralized Christ, bearded, nimbed, and supporting a closed book in his left hand. He is enthroned upon a cushioned laurel wreath with an intersecting arc functioning as a footstool. Harmoniously balanced on either side are two groups of three figures. Approaching from the left, a diminutive bearded and crowned emperor (Otto the Great) presents a model of a church for Christ’s blessing. Among his prominent features is a crown with an arc across the central axis containing smaller arcs. When Otto was crowned in Rome in 962 as emperor of the new empire of the Romans, he presumably wore a special crown with this arc form over the coronation crown. (This precious jeweled regalia survives and is in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna.) Presenting and protecting the emperor is a second figure in profile, Saint Maurice, the national saint of the empire. A warrior saint who died around A.D. 287, Maurice was one of the Theban Legions. Otto secured the relic of his body in 960 for Magdeburg (now the capital of Saxony-Anhalt), where he had founded a monastery dedicated to Maurice in 937 as a missionary center to conquer and convert to Christianity the Slavic lands. Behind Saint Maurice is a taller nimbed figure with wings suggesting Saint Michael. To Christ’s left, in profile, stands the tonsured and bearded Saint Peter—with other unidentified saints behind—clutching his keys and gesturing toward Christ.
The hierarchy of the figures’ size is dictated by the overall theme and by the composition. Thus, Christ is most important: enthroned in heaven on his celestial sphere—in the form of a garland wreath—with his feet on an earthly footstool, he is the largest figure and has enormous hands, too. The composition is a perfect visual metaphor of Isaiah 66:1: “Heaven is my throne; the earth my footstool.” The sphere as the throne of Heaven has a long Roman tradition whose meaning emphasizes triumph. The completion of the Isaiah passage elucidates the full meaning of the church model held by Otto: “What is this house that you will build for me? And what is this place of my rest? My hand made all of these things, all of these things were made, said the Lord.”
To a tenth-century audience, the perception of God’s munificence is clear. The church model Otto offered to Christ refers to the emperor’s foundation of a church at Magdeburg. A contemporary chronicler tells us that Otto saw the city as a “new Rome” and had precious materials from Italy brought there for his new church. Others called Magdeburg a “royal city” and when Otto died in 973 he was buried in his beloved new cathedral. For the dedication of Magdeburg as an archbishopric in 968, a special liturgical furnishing was commissioned incorporating the “dedication panel” and a large series of panels depicting the life of Christ. We do not know today what this object was, possibly for the pulpit or a chancel door. Now consisting of sixteen surviving panels showing the life of Christ, the “Magdeburg ivories” are among the earliest surviving treasures of this ancient church. The artistic goal seems to have been to create a pictorial ensemble that could be easily read visually and interpreted. The Museum’s plaque must have formed the centerpiece of this ensemble—dismantled long ago—but many elements were preserved in other settings from the region.
Mid-tenth-century Saxony was an unlikely place for creating a cycle of ivory carvings. There is extensive evidence of artistic production in Milan for manuscript illumination, stuccowork, goldsmith work, and ivory carving. Otto and his second wife Adelaide (931–999) spent much time in Italy. Works in ivory made specifically for him in the vicinity of Milan establish it as a major artistic center and almost certainly the “Magdeburg ivories” were made there and sent to the North.
Some Other Works from the Ottonian Period
Cologne was a key administrative and trading center from Roman times and became the seat of the powerful archbishop Bruno (925–965), brother of Otto the Great. Around 1000, a miniature ivory relief, possibly carved around Cologne, shows the crucified Christ between the mourning Mary and John with angels above (17.190.495). This type of crucifixion, in which Christ is poignantly depicted as the living redeemer, was characteristic of Cologne and the region. Monumental crucifixes in wood created in Cologne and elsewhere at this time often incorporated relics within. On the reverse of this ivory panel is a micro cavity to accommodate a tiny relic of the True Cross. The panel’s small scale may indicate that it was worn as an amulet; thus the owner came under the protection of the holy relic.
Other precious works from around the year 1000 echo a Roman connection. The gold, star-shaped brooch (1988.15) with a centrally mounted ancient sapphire intaglio is a testament to imperial Christian symbolism. On the sapphire, a profile image of an emperor, one of the sons of Constantine the Great (r. 306–337), forms the axis of the cross (originally laid out in precious stones), signifying that the emperor, a possible owner, symbolically rules under the protection of the cross. Although the other gems and pearls are now lost, the micro architecture in the form of a centralized building became one of the hallmarks of Ottonian goldsmiths working for the court, but whose exact production location is debated.
In a similar way, a lavish gold and enamel ring is one of the most complex goldsmith works for personal use to survive from the Ottonian period (only a row of pearls has been lost) (2004.274). Perhaps preserving an earlier cloisonné enamel, it reveals a range of goldsmith techniques within its micro architecture. Of unknown origin, the ring is closely linked to items from the so-called Gisela treasure—found in Mainz in 1880—and is thought to be associated with Gisela’s wedding in 1016 to Conrad II (990–1039). Technically, many of the micro-goldsmith features and the cloisonné enamel recall treasures produced for Archbishop Egbert of Trier (r. 977–93), thus providing a possible context and origin for many Ottonian precious objects.
By contrast, one of the dominating groups of the period were the Vikings, whose exploits are well known over a wide geographic range. The Viking Age (ca. 800–1100) dominated much of northern Europe and these peoples had contacts and connections with places as far away as North America and Central Asia. Great precious-metal brooches were the consummate status symbol of the Vikings. By the tenth-century, high-ranking men often wore a large silver brooch consisting of a long pin and ring (also called a penannular brooch) to fasten a cloak of fur or textile. In Scandinavia, brooches became quite lavish, made in precious metals and displaying technical virtuosity. In one example, a terminal of an open ring (2000.140), knotted patterns in gold wire and panels of intertwined serpents celebrate the Viking love of rich pattern, texture, and opulent materials. Many such precious items of jewelry were intentionally cut up to become a form of currency, for trade, or for recycling. Thus, these often survive in fragmentary form.
Little, Charles T. “The Art of Ivory and Gold in Northern Europe around 1000 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gi1k/hd_gi1k.htm (May 2016)
Fillitz, Hermann. Die Gruppe der Magdeburger Elfenbeintafeln. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2001.
Lasko, Peter. Ars sacra, 800–1200. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Little, Charles T. "From Milan to Magdeburg: The Place of the Magdeburg Ivories in Ottonian Art." In Atti del 10 congresso internazionale di studi sull'alto medioevo, Milano 26–30 settembre 1983, pp. 441–51. Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 1986.
Williams, Gareth, Peter Pentz, and Matthias Wernhoff, eds. Vikings: Life and Legend. Exh. cat. London: The British Museum, 2014.
Little, Charles T., and Wendy A. Stein. “The Face in Medieval Sculpture.” (October 2006)