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Dimensions:Overall: 12 x 4 1/2 x 3/16 in. (30.5 x 11.4 x 0.5 cm)
Credit Line:The Cloisters Collection, 1955
This double-sided comb features a row of teeth above and below an arched openwork central panel. The bottom teeth are large, widely-spaced, and terminate in a horizontal line, while the narrower teeth above end in a domed profile that mirrors the openwork panel in the center. Three of the teeth are missing, two of the thin ones above and one of the thicker on the bottom. The openwork panel has been punched to the forms of four animals facing a large plant with two leaves. Other small bits of vegetation cling to the ground line and the arcing top. The animals appear to be chimeras, having hooves and antlers like deer but also hooked beaks like eagles, plus a variety of tail types. Their bodies are marked with strap-like lines and dots, which run around the neck like collars, from the front to hind legs, or across the torso like belts.
This comb is of uncertain provenance, a quality that, with its unusual form, make attribution a difficult task. Fernand Cabrol included an illustration of the comb in his 1938 book Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne (Tome 13, p. 2950). He claimed that the early eighteenth-century antiquarian Bernard Montfaucon had illustrated it in his albums, but this has proven difficult to verify within Monfaucon’s large oeuvre of archeological treatises. Comparison of the comb to others leads in conflicting directions. The overall shape of the combs suggest a Carolingian milieu for its production. Comparable combs include one seventh-century example in the sacristry of Sens Cathedral called The Comb of St. Loup de Sens, two in the Louvre dated to around 870 (acc. nos. MR 358; OA 9064) and another in Cinquantenaire Museum, Brussels and dated to the tenth century. Like the present comb, all three feature two sets of teeth. On all these examples, the lower, broad teeth terminate in a straight line while the upper ones form an arch that mirrors a decorated panel carved into the bridge. On The Met’s comb, the incised V patterns on the terminals of the large teeth appear to be rough suggestions of the elongated egg motifs and chamfered edges on the Cinquantenaire and Louvre combs. Staggered terminations of the small teeth lend the arches a distinctive crenelated outline on all combs of this type. A further ivory comb with an arched top attributed to the Middle Byzantine period is preserved in the collection of the British Museum (OA.1412). Like the three Carolingian examples, this Byzantine piece is carved in low relief rather than punched through and adorned with inscribed decoration like the present comb.
While the overall form of the comb conforms to surviving examples localized to the Carolingian Empire, the decoration recalls Late Antique carving from the Mediterranean. Chief among these carvings are the flat, rectangular combs adorned with openwork zoomorphic forms localized to Late Antique Egypt. Examples of these wooden combs are held in The Met (acc. nos. 12.182.86; 12.182.87, among other examples), the British Museum (inv. no. 1930,0412.18), The Brooklyn Museum (inv. no. 79.174), The Los Angeles Museum of Art (inv. nos. M.80.202.256; M.80.202.257), and are occasionally encountered in the art market (Christie’s Sale, "Antiquities," 25th of October, 2007, Lot 191). The examples in the collection of The Met were recovered in the Egyptian town of Maghagha, but combs localized to Late Antique Egypt could travel significant distances soon after manufacture. Upon his death in 687, for instance, the English Saint Cuthbert was interred with an Egyptian comb. Though lacking carved animals like the other Egyptian combs, the Comb of Saint Cuthbert matches the present comb in terms of its luxurious material, ivory, and the arched top in the comb’s bridge.
A second group of similar carvings is localized to near-contemporary Italy. The punched, zoomorphic patterns, and inscribed lines on the fragments of an eighth-century episcopal throne from the Crypta Balbi in Rome and thought to be from the church of San Lorenzo in Pallacinis conforms to the broad outlines of the current carving. Given their Italian provenance, these fragments point to a pan-Mediterranean artistic tradition of applying openwork zoomorphic patterns to artworks of ivory and bone and suggest the essential interconnectedness of this region in Late Antiquity. Together with the surviving combs in other collections, they suggest an attribution of the comb somewhere in the Mediterranean in the eighth or ninth centuries.
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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