This coffret illustrated with scenes from Arthurian and other courtly literature of the Middle Ages is one of the most imposing examples to survive. The lid represents the assault on the metaphorical fortress, Castle of Love, with a tournament and knights catapulting roses. The left end depicts Tristan and Isolde spied upon by King Mark, and a hunter killing a unicorn trapped by a virgin. The right end shows a knight rescuing a lady from the Wildman (Wodehouse), and Galahad receiving the key to the castle of maidens. At the back are Lancelot and the lion, Lancelot crossing the sword bridge, Gawain asleep on the magic bed, and the maidens welcoming their deliverer. The newly discovered front panel (1988.16), lost since before 1800, is a poignant depiction of the love tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe (two scenes at right) and Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great and Phyllis riding on the back of Aristotle (two scenes at left).
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3/4 Left (acc. no. 1988.16): four scenes, from left to right: Aristotle teaching Alexander, Phyllis riding Aristotle, the lion shredding the cloak of Thisbe, the suicide of Pyramus); (acc. no. 17.190.173a): three panels and bottom of casket; (acc. no. 17.190.173b): top panel of casket with the assault on the metaphorical fortress, Castle of Love, with a tournament and knights catapulting roses
Front: Aristotle lectures Alexander the Great, Phyllis Rides Aristotle, the Lion rends the veil of Thisbe, and Thisbe kills herself on Pyramus
Side: a mounted knight saves a young woman from a wild man and a knight is welcomed to a castle
Back: Lancelot fights a Lion, Lancelot crosses the Sword Bridge, Gawain lays upon the Perilous Bed, the Three Maidens of La Roche de Canguin watch the Adventure of the Perilous Bed
Side: Tristan and Isolde see the reflection of King Mark in a fountain, and a maiden and hunter entrap a unicorn
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Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988
Accession Number:17.190.173a, b; 1988.16
This group of five ivory panels are the reassembled elements of a "composite casket," so called by scholars because the narrative scenes that adorn them are vignettes from a variety of popular stories and chivalric romances. The sides, top, and back panel came to the museum in 1917 as a part of the Morgan gift. The front had been removed from the box before entering the collection of Sir Francis Douce in the 18th century and was presumed lost. It was reunited with the rest of the box only after it appeared on the art market in 1988, at which time its nineteenth-century metal armature, likely added during its time in the Frédéric Spitzer Collection, was removed. With all the elements reunited, a complete picture of the box’s scenes can be appreciated. The front represents scenes from the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe and Aristotle and Phyllis. Scenes from Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart and Parceval, The Story of the Grail, both works by Chrétien de Troyes, adorn the back. One of the side panels shows a scene from the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which King Mark is spying on the lovers. Other scenes do not appear to be tethered to any romance in particular. The scene of Tristan and Isolde in their garden on one side of the box stands beside another in which a maiden and a hunter entrap a unicorn, a scene deriving ultimately from bestiaries. The other side represent a knight stabbing a wild man through the mouth, a scene common on ivory boxes but unknown from surviving literature of the period. The lid represents a joust between two representations of the siege of the Castle of Love, a scene with obvious erotic connotations but no literary precedent.
Narrative scenes with no apparent antecedent within written literature demonstrate the liberties that medieval ivory carvers took with their source material and suggest a more complex interaction between written, oral, and visual storytelling than modern audiences may expect. Indeed, as Paula Mae Carns has noted, the modern designation of composite caskets to describe such boxes pays tribute to the medieval literary practice of compilatio, a method of literary production in which authors gathered excerpts on a specific theme with the aim of presenting a summary of thinking on a particular subject. The current box, by presenting ancient exempla, fragments of literary romances, and purely visual metaphors for the course of love, represents an instance in which the artists served as compilers and, within medieval definitions, as literary storytellers in their own right. Like the author of a medieval compilatio, the carver responsible for the current box used editorial choices to emphasize or draw parallels between the moral overtones of various tales. The front of the box provides a telling example. In the scene on the left, Phyllis, the lover of Alexander the Great, tricks Aristotle into serving as a horse as a price for her affection. On the right, Pyramus and Thisbe planned to run away from home one evening, but tragedy strikes after Thisbe happens upon a lion at the rendezvous site and drops her veil. Pyramus, coming late to the site, finds the bloody veil and, believing Thisbe dead, stabs himself. Thisbe, coming upon her dead lover, kills herself on the same sword. Together, the two stories speak to the power of love to overcome reason and lead to disaster. Similarly, the pairing of the hunt for the unicorn and the spying of King Mark on Tristan and Isolde on one side suggest how love can lead to duplicity and destruction. Other scenes on the box suggest alternative views of the morality of love and call attention to love’s call to heroism and moral clarity.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part II (London: V&A Publishing, 2014), pp. 653-706.
Richard H. Randall Jr., "Popular Romances Carved in Ivory." In Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age, edited by Peter Barnet (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997), pp. 62-79.
Paula Mae Carns, "Compilatio in Ivory: The Composite Casket in the Metropolitan Museum," Gesta 45, no. 2 (2005), pp. 69-88.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Sir Francis Douce (British)[17.190.173a, b]; Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick[17.190.173a, b]; [ Frédéric Spitzer (Austrian), Paris (sold 1893) [17.190.173a, b]; his posthumous sale, Chevallier & Mannheim, Paris (April 17–June 16, 1893, no. 114); [ Bourgeois Frères, Cologne (from 1893) [17.190.173a, b]]; Baron Albert Oppenheim, Cologne(sold 1906) [17.190.173a, b]; J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (1906–1917) [17.190.173a, b]; Private Collection, Sevenoaks, Kent, England (sold 1987) [1988.16]; [ Parson, Welch, & Cowell, Sevenoaks, Kent (April 1, 1987, lot 26)] [1988.16]; [ Alain Moatti, Paris (sold 1988)] [1988.16]
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