Ivory mirror cases were usually carved in pairs to protect a polished metal disk within and then placed within a leather case. None survive with their original case, but this , together with its mate (acc. no. 17.190.246), represents a rare fitted pair.
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Geography:Made in France
Dimensions:Overall: 3 1/4 x 3/8 in. (8.2 x 1 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
The central roundel on the exterior of this mirror case depicts three mounted figures riding to the gate of a castle. The central figure wears a wimple and crispinette, elements of women’s head coverings that were typical of the middle of the fourteenth century. The male companion to her proper right holds a falcon. Four grotesque beasts guard the outer perimeter, lending the circular mirror an overall square silhouette.
The circular recession in the interior of this mirror case once housed a slightly domed, circular mirror of polished metal or mercury glass. Ivory mirror cases like this one were made in pairs to form a complete protective envelope for the fragile mirror, which would themselves be stored in pouches of velvet or silk or in form-fitting leather boxes called etuis. Most Gothic mirror backs have long ago lost their mates, but The Metropolitan Museum of Art retains the original mate to the current back (acc. no. 17.190.246), offering a crucial insight into how mirror cases functioned when complete. Like most Gothic ivory mirror backs, the present mirror back and its mate lock together by means of a bayonet mount. On the present plaque, a pair of slots and a depressed ring have been carved into the interior of the raised rim. Its mate features two pins that slide into these slots. By inserting the pins into the slots and turning the two halves of the case relative to each other, the two sides lock into a strong bond. When fully engaged, the dragonettes on the rims of the mirror case form an eight-sided star. Currently, the mechanism works but is inclined to become stuck, suggesting that seven centuries of exposure to the atmosphere may have warped the hand-made mechanism or that it was greased when in regular use.
If this mirror back is unique and indeed precious by virtue of having been preserved with its mate, its carved decoration is not among the most refined in The Met’s collection. Whereas many Gothic ivories of this period are worked in high relief, with subtle modelling to features like hair and hands, the carver responsible for this carving has opted for a more planar approach, with details incised into the surface. The heavy wear to the faces of the figures further amplifies this impression of flatness. Gothic ivory carving ranges in quality from the exquisite to the poor. This feature has long been a conundrum for art historians, who expect ivory to be handled carefully and by the most talented artists on account of its high value and its exotic origin. Art historians such as Margaret Longhurst have attempted to account for variation in quality by grouping objects of similar levels of skill together and attributing them to different carving centers, cruder works having been made in England, for instance, and more refined ones in Paris. Raymond Koechlin, writing in the 1920’s, suggested that quality fluctuated over time, with Paris producing poor-quality ivories after the English conquest brought a ruling class who sought to ape the lifestyle of the French aristocracy but lacked its powers of discrimination. More recent scholars have proposed that varying quality in ivory carving represents a variety of price points available to consumers. In this vision, lower-quality ivories were cheaper and therefore available to wider buying publics, while finer ones may have been special commissions commissioned by aristocrats and royalty. This runs into problems when faced with archival evidence linking some of the crudest ivory carvings to royal patrons and monastic institutions.
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. 1030, pp. 367, 384.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume II, Catalogue. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 1030, p. 377.
Songs of Glory: Medieval Art from 900 to 1500. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Museum of Art, 1985. no. 86, pp. 243–44.
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.
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