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The Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds
The Visitation of the Three Magi
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Title:Box with Scenes from the Infancy of Christ
Date:19th century with 14th century elements
Culture:European (French style)
Medium:Ivory, metal (silver?) mounts
Dimensions:Overall: 3 3/8 x 2 5/8 x 2 5/8 in. (8.5 x 6.6 x 6.6 cm)
Credit Line:Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915
This box is composed of six panels of ivory bound by modern metal clamps. The carvings on the sides represent scenes from the pregnancy of Mary and the early life of Jesus as recounted in the Christian Gospels. In order, they are the Annunciation; the Visitation; Mary resting with the infant Jesus while the angel Gabriel announces his birth to the shepherds; and the homage of the Three Wise Men to Jesus. These narrative scenes take place under a gothic architectural canopy composed of pointed, cusped arches and crocketed gables. A quadripartite rose window inscribed within a square molding ornamented with roses decorates the lid. Its handle is affixed to the center of the rose and takes the form of a metal ring embellished with an oak leaf. The base is a single, unadorned slab of ivory. The box exhibits several areas of damage, especially a series of horizontal breaks that run across all four panels. The lid has also suffered from warping.
Several aspects of this box suggest that it was put together in the modern era. The box has been assembled by overlapping the ends of the four sides and bolting them together. This is at variance with fourteenth-century construction techniques, which normally favor robust rabbet joints and fronts and backs that overlap the sides. As a fourteenth-century box in The Met’s collection demonstrates (acc. no. 41.100.159a, b), medieval carvers normally left smooth, flat spaces for metal mounts when designing boxes. This allowed the mounts to lie snuggly on the ivory surface. The lock plate on the current box by contrast lies over a carved canopy, and the upper clamps that hold together the sides fold over the outer frames of the panels. A small hole on the lower right of the Annunciation and three holes the lower left of the Visitation panel evince former hinges in these positions, suggesting that these panels were once joined in a hinged diptych.
The scale and proportions of the individual side panels also closely match those of single-register devotional diptychs common in fourteenth-century France, suggesting that an artist, dealer, or collector assembled a group of fragmentary diptychs to create the current composition in the nineteenth or twentieth century. Stylistically, the carving on all four panels resembles an ivory now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum (acc. no. A.27-1940). Especially similar is the employment of parallel horizontal cuts to render the hair and beards. Plaques representing scenes from the pregnancy of Mary and the infancy of Christ survive from the fourteenth century in relative abundance, and single panels from devotional diptychs and triptychs circulated the art market in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Raymond Koechlin’s Ivoires Gothiques Français, for instance, lists five isolated panels representing the Nativity and the Annunciation to the shepherds (Plate LXXXVIII, nos. 457, 459, 460, 461, 465). The lid, by contrast, is an unusual form, with abstract and floral imagery more typical of nineteenth-century gothic revival than actual medieval carvings in ivory, suggesting that it dates to the moment when the panels were assembled.
Richard D. Randall, Jr. Masterpieces of Ivory from the Walters Art Gallery (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1985), pp. 218-221.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part I (London: Victoria & Albert Publishing, 2014), pp. 211-323.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part II (London: Victoria & Albert Publishing, 2014), pp. 653-706.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022.
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