This carved ivory plaque once served as the case for a hand mirror. When joined with its mate, the bayonet mount carved into its interior formed a tight grip with the matching side, providing protection for a delicate mirror made of silvered or mercury-lined glass. In fourteenth century France, ivory mirror cases of this type were made by ivory carvers called pigniers, who also specialized in the creation of luxury hygienic articles like combs and hair picks. Among the most popular products of Gothic ivory carvers, the courtly subject matter, elegant carving, and use of a luxury material such as ivory indicate that mirror cases like this one were intended for aristocratic clients; medieval inventories confirm that these objects frequently belonged to such households.
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Title:Ivory Mirror Case with a Falconing Party
Dimensions:Overall: 3 3/4 x 3 3/4 x 3/8 in. (9.5 x 9.5 x 1 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Seven cusps inhabited by grotesque faces surround the central medallion of this circular mirror back. In the central roundel, a group of young aristocrats enjoy a day of falconing on horseback. A lady at center holds a falcon in her right hand and is accompanied by two young men. One holds his own falcon and gestures back to the other, who blows into a hunting bugle. The trees and the stony, uneven ground line suggest that the scene takes place in a rural hunting preserve. Four leaf-shaped tabs with drill holes at their center form corners for the composition, transforming the otherwise circular silhouette of the mirror into a square.
The mirror case is in excellent condition, the losses to the end of the leaf-shaped corners notwithstanding. The ivory is an even, milky white with no trace of polychromy.
Although slightly smaller and iconographically simpler, the mirror case is a near duplicate to another ivory in the collection (acc. No. 41.100.160). The current mirror case dispenses with the lions surrounding the perimeter of 41.100.160, as well as with incidental details in the narrative scene such as the second female rider, the hunting dog, and the swooping falcon. The serial replication of a standardized iconography is typical of ivory carving from fourteenth-century Paris. The early connoisseur, cataloger, and historian of medieval ivory carving, Raymond Koechlin, expressed ambivalence and even dislike for much of the production of these ateliers, accusing them of creating unimaginative and formulaic works of art of middling quality.
The standardization of imagery in fourteenth-century ivories that so bemused Koechlin likely resulted from industrial practice and customer demand. Parisian artisans employed ivory to fashion practical items that had sizeable markets. The guild ordinances of Paris divided the trade of ivory carving by function. While the production of devotional works and writing tablets fell to a group of craftsmen called tabletieres, mirror cases were made by comb-makers or pigniers, who normally sold ivory mirrors in boxes (etuis) equipped with ivory combs and gravoirs, stick-like implements used to part the hair during styling (Sears 1997, pp. 29-31). Pigniers sold directly to customers but also to mercers and travelling peddlers who traded in luxury goods like foreign textiles (Williamson and Davies 2014, pp. 562-563). For pigniers charged with making mirror cases, standardized iconographies drawn from workshop models allowed the carvers to work faster. Indeed, the current mirror back and the other in the collection are so alike that they likely originate in the same workshop from the same model, the current example slightly simplified and the previous example (acc. no. 41.100.160) slightly elaborated off that model.
For buying audiences, the replication of imagery was likely a welcome boon rather than a drawback to this form of serial, market-oriented production. The scenes that adorn mirror backs condense core principles of aristocratic ideology, the pursuit of love, into their essential messages. The visual formulae created by Parisian pigniers so elegantly delineated the core themes of courtly love that they required little variation. Some frequently-reproduced scenes characterize love as a battle (acc. no. 2003.131.1), a twinning of love and war as old as Greek myths recounting the trysts of Aphrodite and Ares and perfectly suited for a contemporary society dominated by the concerns of warrior aristocrats. Other carved mirror backs imagine love as a competition like a game of chess or follow the story of young lovers from their first meeting to the affirmation of their commitment. The current example shows courtly love as an aspirational state where the young, rich, attractive, and well-dressed mingle with the opposite sex in the pursuit of pleasure.
The original owner of the mirror back perhaps strove to embody the elegance of the riding figures that adorn the round medallion. Indeed, the enmeshment of ivory mirrors in the social aspirations of the ruling class likely led in part to the replication of imagery that Koechlin noticed a century ago. Replication of ivory mirrors with the same general shape, size, and carved imagery allowed them to function as luxury fashion accessories when kept in their leather cases and worn on the belt. Under such circumstances of use, the ownership of matching mirror cases could become a way to signal in-group identity. Variations between mirror cases such as the difference in complexity between the current example and the other in The Met’s collection may have been less obvious and important to original viewers than their shared conformity to overarching characteristics like shape, size, and figural imagery that demonstrated the adoption of aristocratic lifestyle and ideals. In this way, they share social functions with luxury articles from other eras, such as Roman silver vessels, garnet-cloisonné of the fifth and sixth centuries, or modern handbags, where the replication of forms and decorative motifs amplifies rather than diminishes the power of these articles to participate meaningfully in the social lives of their users.
Raymond Koechlin, Les Ivoires Gothiques Français. 3 volumes (Paris: Auguste Picard, 1924).
Elisabeth Sears, "Ivory and Ivory Workers in Medieval Paris," in Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age (Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997), pp. 18-37.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part 2 (London: 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
Octave Homberg, Paris; J. Pierpont Morgan (American), London and New York (until 1917)
Lawrence, KS. University of Kansas Museum of Art. "The Waning Middle Ages, an exhibition of French and Netherlandish Art from 1350-1500," November 1, 1969–December 1, 1969.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table," December 17, 2013–April 13, 2014.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume I, Text. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 1030 bis, p. 385.
Koechlin, Raymond. Les Ivoires Gothiques Français: Volume II, Catalogue. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1924. no. 1030 bis, pp. 377–78.
Schrader, J. L., ed. The Waning Middle Ages, an Exhibition of French and Netherlandish Art from 1350-1500: Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of "The Waning of the Middle Ages" by Johan Huizinga. Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Museum of Art, 1969. no. 79, p. 68, pl. V.
Barnet, Peter, ed. Images In Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997. p. 236.
Carns, Paula Mae. "Cutting a Fine Figure: Costume on French Gothic Ivories." Medieval Clothing and Textiles 5 (2009). p. 76 nn. 67–68, p. 90.
Adlin, Jane. "Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., 71, no. 2 (2013). pp. 4–5, fig. 3.
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