This head of a bishop's staff bears two iconic images: on one side, a Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist; on the other, a standing Virgin and Child with a monastic donor kneeling before her and Saint Denis, the patron saint of France.
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Virgin and Child with kneeling abbot (at left) and St. Denis (at right)
Crucifixion flanked by Mary (at left) and St. John the Evangelist (at right)
Detail, Saint Denis
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Title:Crozier Head with Crucifixion, Virgin and Child, and Saint Denis
Geography:Made in probably Paris, France
Dimensions:Overall: 5 13/16 x 3 1/8 x 1 1/2 in. (14.8 x 8 x 3.8 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
This work typifies a group of French ivory crozier heads from the mid-fourteenth-century, whose foliate volutes enclose two popular devotional images, back to back: on one side, the Crucifixion of Jesus witnessed by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, on the other side, the Virgin and Child with flanking figures. The volute of the crozier head assumes the form of a knotted tree whose sinuous trunk supports the devotional images within. The Met’s example is of an exceptionally high quality, with its sumptuous drapery, softly modeled vegetation, and faces distinguished by hooded eyes and round, fleshy cheeks.
Propping the Infant Jesus on her hip, the Virgin’s curving body recalls a category of statuettes produced for private devotion in Paris and other centers of French ivory carving (several of which are in the collection). The Virgin and Child scene also offers clues regarding the identity and devotional life of its owner: perhaps he was the abbot portrayed kneeling in prayer and wearing monastic robes next to the holy family. Donor figures are uncommon within the extant corpus of fourteenth-century croziers, excepting some notable examples. Below the crook of one of the pieces at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (inv. no. A.558-1910), an abbot-patron kneels in prayer with a crozier balanced against his cheek.
To the right of the Virgin and Child on The Met’s crozier head, the Early Christian martyr St. Denis (also known as "Dionysius") cradles his decapitated head in his hands. Regarded as the first bishop of Paris, St. Denis was commemorated at a powerful Benedictine abbey north of the city, and its church became the burial site of the French royal family. Because St. Denis occupies a privileged position alongside the Virgin and Child on this crozier head, it is possible that the crozier’s patron was affiliated with this famous Parisian monastery and had a special devotion to the saint.
Unlike many medieval ivory croziers, whose crooks may be beveled but are generally uncarved, this group is distinguished by vegetal motifs carved in low relief, usually ivy-like foliage emerging from a knotted trunk. Referring to the paradisiacal Tree of Life ("lignum vitae" in Latin) mentioned in the books of Genesis and Revelation, the knotted trunk also recalled the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. In the Christian tradition, Jesus’ crucified body is the fruit that, when consumed during the celebration of the Eucharist in the form of the consecrated Host, becomes a source of salvation to the faithful.
On either side of the trunk of The Met’s crozier head, kneeling angels reach up with both hands, pulling the tree’s leafy branches to create the sheltered narrative field within the volute. While their poses look deceptively effortless, the angels and the downturned tree limbs also serve the practical function of stabilizing the delicate ivory volute from below. Several fourteenth-century crozier heads from France feature the same scenes within the crook as well as angels or other figures at the base, including examples at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence (inv. no. 120 Carrand), the Musée national du Moyen-âge in Paris (inv. no. CL 430), the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (inv. no. BK-NM-2306) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. nos. A.558-1910 and 214-1865).
Paris was a prolific center for ivory carving in the mid-fourteenth century, and the objects produced there were highly prized throughout Western Europe. Because regional ivory carvers took inspiration from the iconography and style of Parisian works, it is often difficult to specify a crozier head’s place of origin. The remarkable refinement of this carving and the special position occupied by St. Denis, however, indicate that it was almost certainly produced in the French capital according to the specifications of an elite donor.
Traces of the ivory carver’s working methods are visible in the tool marks preserved around the edges of leaves and on the abbot’s chest. The long recess extending from the back of this crozier head along the exterior of the volute might have facilitated the attachment of decorative elements or the attachment of the crozier head to the shaft and may not be original.
The earliest publications referring to this crozier head are associated with various exhibitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the Exposition rétrospective d'art industriel, held in Brussels in 1888, and the World’s Fair, held in Paris the following year. These early publications and exhibitions promoted the crozier head as a masterwork of French sculpture.
Catalogue Entry by Nicole D. Pulichene, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Charles Mannheim, Paris (by at least 1898); J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (until 1917)
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. "The Life of Christ: a loan exhibition of works of art illustrating episodes in the life of Christ," March 12–April 25, 1948.
Reusens, Edmond Henri Joseph, ed. Exposition Rétrospective d'Art Industriel, Bruxelles 1888: Catalogue Officiel. Brussels: P. Weissenbruch, 1888. no. 1401, p. 250.
Darcel, Alfred, and Emile Molinier, ed. Exposition rétrospective de l'art française au Trocadéro. Exposition universelle de 1889. Lille: L. Danel, 1889. no. 120, p. 18.
Mannheim, Jules. "L'Exposition Rétrospective d'Objets d'Art Français au Palais du Trocadéro." L'art: Revue hebdomadaire illustrée 15, no. 2 (1889). p. 80.
Molinier, Emile. Les Ivoires. Histoire générale des arts appliqués à l'industrie, Vol. 1. Paris: Librairie Centrale des Beaux-Arts, 1896. p. 194.
Molinier, Emile. Collection Charles Mannheim: Objets d'Art. Paris: s.n., 1898. no. 144, ill. unnumbered plate.
Catalogue officiel illustré de l'exposition retrospective de l'art français des origines à 1800. Exposition universelle de 1900. Paris: Lemercier & Cie., 1900. no. 75, p. 264.
Migeon, Gaston. Exposition rétrospective de l'art français en 1900. Paris: Exposition universelle de 1900, 1900. p. 16.
Migeon, Gaston. "L'exposition rétrospective de l'art français: Les ivoires." La Revue de l'Art Ancien et Moderne 7, no. 4 (June 1900). p. 457, ill.
Maskell, Alfred. Ivories. London: Methuen & Co., 1905. p. 217.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume I, Text. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 764, pp. 271, 273, 274, 275.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume II, Catalogue. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 764, p. 273.
The Life of Christ: A Loan Exhibition of Works of Art Illustrating Episodes in the Life of Christ. Hartford, CT: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 1948. no. 116, p. 22.
Hayward, Jane. "Sacred Vestments as They Developed in the Middle Ages." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 29, no. 7 (March 1971). pp. 308–9, fig. 17.
Yvard, Catherine. "Gothic Ivories and their Owners: An Overview." In A Reservoir of Ideas: Essays in Honour of Paul Williamson, edited by Glyn Davies, and Eleanor Townsend. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2017. p. 202, Appendix no. 43.
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