Ivory was so highly valued in Byzantium that emperors received it in tribute. Here, a fragment of a tusk, originally carved in the round, displays one of the most important Byzantine images, the Ascension of Christ into Heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11).
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Title:Tusk Fragment with the Ascension
Date:720–970 Radiocarbon date, 95% probability
Geography:Attributed to Egypt or Palestine
Dimensions:H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm) W. 4 15/16 in. (12.5 cm) D. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm) Max. Th. 1 1/16 in. (2.7 cm)
Classification:Ivories and Bone
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Two Tusk Fragments with the Ascension of Christ:17.190.46 and 17.190.48
Conforming to the shape of the ivory tusks from which they were carved, these two fragmentary images of the Ascension are so similar that they must have been carved by the same workshop. On the larger fragment,17.190.46, Christ enthroned in a mandorla is carried to heaven by four horizontally posed angels; the Virgin Orans flanked by six of the apostles stands below. The smaller work,17.190.48, replicates Christ and one angel from the larger work. They were originally attributed to Egyptians working in Byzantine Palestine in the late sixth or early seventh century, but recent Carbon-14 testing has confirmed that the works are later products of the era of Muslim rule. The potential overlapping ninth-to tenth-century dates for the ivories conform to a suggested attribution of the larger ivory and allow for a common workshop production. The ivories’ densely patterned compositions and stylized figures with large eyes and drilled pupils are similar to wood carvings of the same period from the Church of Abu Serga (dedicated to Saint Sergios), then a very important Coptic church, functioning as the See of Misr (Old Cairo). Additional Carbon-14 testing may reveal other ivories of this period, which would be more evidence of the continuing prosperity of some Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean in the Early Islamic era.
Helen C. Evans in [Evans and Ratliff 2012]
1. Joseph Breck. "Two Early Christian Ivories of the Ascension". Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 14, no. 11 (November 1919), pp. 242– 44; Dorothy E. Miner, ed. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. Exh. cat. Baltimore, 1947, p. 50, no. 157, pl. XXI.
2. Charles T. Little, Peter Barnet, Pete Dandridge, Helen C. Evans, Melanie Holcomb, Barbara Boehm. The Medieval Ivory Project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carbon-14 analysis undertaken under the direction of Pete Dandridge by Beta Analytic Inc., in 2010–11; the 2 sigma calibration for 17.190.46 was reported as 720–40 and 770–970 and for 17.190.46, 810–1010, with 95% probability for both analyses, and the ninth–10th century being the overlapping time frame. Previously unpublished results on file in the Metropolitan Museum's departments of Objects Conservation and Medieval Art.
3. John Beckwith. Coptic Sculpture: 300–1300. London, 1963, pp. 30, 41. n. 125, p. 56, cat. no. 134, fig. 134; Wolfgang Fritz Volbach. Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters. 2d ed. Mainz, 1952, p. 106, no. 255, pl. 68, fig. 255, places it with works of the same period.
4. Wolfgang Fritz Volbach and Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne. Byzanz und der christliche Osten. Berlin, 1968, p. 359, no. 401b; Thelma K. Thomas. "Christians in the Islamic East." In The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261, edited by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, p. 368. Exh. cat. New York, 1997; Gawdat Gabra and Marianne Eaton-Krauss. The Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Museum and Churches of Old Cairo. Cairo, 2006, pp. 231–39, 277, figs. 146–149.
J. Pierpont Morgan (American), New York (until d. 1913; his estate 1913–17; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition," March 14–July 8, 2012, no. 45A.
Breck, Joseph. "Two Early Christian Ivories." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, old series, vol. 14 (1919). p. 242–44, ill. p. 243 (b/w).
Early Christian Ivories vol. XXIV (1920). p. 116.
Breck, Joseph, and Meyric R. Rogers. Pierpont Morgan Wing: A Handbook. 2 ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1929. p. 43.
Miner, Dorothy, ed. Early Christian and Byzantine Art: An Exhibition Held at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 1947. no. 157, p. 50.
Evans, Helen C., and Brandie Ratliff, ed. Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. no. 45A, p. 74, ill. (color).
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