Ivory mirror cases were usually carved in pairs to protect a polished metal disk within and then placed within a leather case. None survives with their original case, but this, together with its mate (17.190.247), represents a rare fitted pair.
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Geography:Made in France
Dimensions:Overall: 3 1/4 x 5/16 in. (8.2 x 0.8 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
This mirror back is one half of a mirror case whose mate is also in the Museum’s collection (acc. no. 17.190.247). The recessed niche on its interior once contained a domed mirror of glass covered in a thin film of reflective silver or mercury. The carved scene on its exterior depicts literary metaphors for the progress of love. Perched in the tree at center is a winged figure who may be identified as Cupid, Amor, or the god of Love. Below him are two couples caught in the throes of love. On the right, a man falls to his knees at the feet of a seated lady, his hand clasped in a gesture of supplication and subordination, begging her to accept him as her lover. The lady, for her part, raises her hand and locks eyes with the winged figure in the tree, perhaps hesitant to acquiesce the man’s request. As if in response to her quandary, the winged figure readies a bolt or arrow and aims it at the lady’s heart. But to what end? The Metamorphoses of the Roman author Ovid (ca. 43 B.C. – 17 A.D.) was the essential text for classical mythology throughout the Middle Ages and was widely used as a school primer in fourteenth-century France. Ovid describes Cupid as wielding arrows of gold that set hearts aflame and arrows of lead that freeze them. At present, the whiteness of the ivory makes it unclear whether the winged figure's arrow will warm or cool the lady’s heart to the man’s advances. When it was first made, a layer of now-lost paint and gold leaf may have clarified the fate of this man’s proposal.
The figures on left enact a drama whose narrative is clear even without the original paint. There, a woman clasps a man as he collapses into a swoon, the winged figure's arrow having pierced his heart. Modern conceptions of romantic love that emphasize mutual consent, open communication between lovers, and the ultimate goal of enduring happiness would be foreign to medieval authorities on the subject. In his influential On Love (ca. 1180), Andreas Capellanus defines romantic love as "a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex." Later authors also propose pain as the most noteworthy sensation of love. In the influential Romance of the Rose (ca. 1230), the narrator describes being struck by one of Cupid's arrows as a terrible agony that caused him to lose consciousness, much like the man struck by the arrow on the current mirror case, "My wound widening, pain streaming / through my heart, I fell swiftly/ Into a swoon, by an olive tree/ I lay a long while in that trance." The author of the Romance of the Rose, Guillaume de Lorris, claims that the wounds of Cupid’s arrows cause an ailment, love-sickness, whose only cure is proximity to the object of affection. Yet as the works of Chrétien de Troyes (ca. 1135-1185) and other writers in the courtly love genre asserted, romantic love of the most admirable kind was not easily satiated or obtained. They favored forbidden romance filled with trials and tribulations. Forbidden love’s inborn secrecy, threat of exposure, and delayed gratification tested the moral conviction, resolve, and faithfulness of lovers. Even better if the man’s advances were altogether unrequited and his unspoken, private suffering that inspired him to become more worthy of giving and receiving love.
Together, the figural composition on this mirror back tells many stories about the shape of romantic love as understood in the fourteenth century. Love is a sickness and a calling. Love places people at the mercy of one another, tests their resolve, and inspires them to become their most perfected selves. Given ivory’s association with purity and moral rectitude among medieval poets, it is perhaps not surprising that this was a favored medium for carving scenes representing love as a spiritual and moral force. The imagery and material work in unison, and so does the choice of object itself, mirrors being a metaphor for moral self-reflection and a popular love token exchanged by love-struck suitors in the fourteenth century.
If the mirror back casts an unblinking eye at the rigors of love, its mate in the collection (acc. no. 17.190.246) softens the message by offering a window onto the fleeting moments of bliss that await those who surrender themselves to the call of Cupid. There a man and a woman on horseback lock gazes as a companion rides behind. The man holds a falcon in his gloved left hand. The inclusion of this bird of prey evokes the pleasure of a successful romance, a reference obvious to aristocrats who saw the sport of the hunt as a source of fun, pleasure, and joy. When screwed together to form a box for a mirror, the present mirror back and its mate thus presented the trials of love and its goal moments of companionship and pleasure, whose brevity lends them a sharpness and poignancy.
Richard H. Randall, Jr., "Popular Romances Carved in Ivory," in Images on Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997), pp. 62-80.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part 2 (Victoria and Albert Museum Publishing, 2014), pp. 561-606.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Baron Albert Oppenheim, Cologne(from at least 1900–sold 1906); J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (1906-1917)
Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris. "Exposition universelle de 1900. L'exposition retrospective de l'art francais," April 14–November 12, 1900.
Oklahoma City Museum of Art. "Songs of Glory: Medieval Art from 900–1500," January 22–April 29, 1985.
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University. "The Carver's Art: Medieval Sculpture in Ivory, Bone, and Horn," September 9-November 21, 1989.
Catalogue officiel illustré de l'exposition retrospective de l'art français des origines à 1800. Exposition universelle de 1900. Paris: Lemercier & Cie., 1900. no. 157, p. 265.
Molinier, Emile. Collection du Baron Albert Oppenheim: Tableaux et objets d'art, catalogue précédé d'une introduction. Paris: Librairie Centrale des Beaux-Arts, 1904. no. 75, p. 33.
Koechlin, Raymond. "Quelques groupes d'ivoires français: le dieu d'Amour et le château d'Amour sur les valves de boîtes à miroir." Gazette des Beaux Arts, 5th ser., 63, no. 4 (1921). p. 282 n. 2.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume I, Text. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 1072, pp. 367,400,401.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume II, Catalogue. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 1072, p. 389.
Songs of Glory: Medieval Art from 900 to 1500. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Museum of Art, 1985. no. 86, pp. 243–44, ill.
St. Clair, Archer, and Elizabeth Parker McLachlan, ed. The Carver's Art: Medieval Sculpture in Ivory, Bone, and Horn. New Brunswick, N.J.: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, 1989. no. 67, pp. 106–7.
Randall Jr., Richard H. "Games on a Medieval Ivory." Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 56, no. 1/2 (1997). p. 5, fig. 7.
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