Lavishly decorated double-sided combs are often preserved in the treasuries of churches. Such combs conform to types used for personal adornment among the laity and may have passed through several hands before entering the collections of churches to serve ritual purposes. On the current comb, the vigorous design of two youths a hippocamp and a griffin derives from Eastern and Classical motifs, though the wide popularity across the Mediterranean of such imagery makes localization of this comb difficult.
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Title:Comb with Putti and Sea Creatures
Date:late 11th–early 12th century
Dimensions:Overall: 3 3/4 x 4 1/2 x 11/16 in. (9.5 x 11.4 x 1.7 cm)
Credit Line:The Cloisters Collection, 1966
This double-sided comb, a flattened ellipse in cross-section, is formed from a single block of ivory. Two sets of teeth have been sawn into the slab, with thicker, widely spaced teeth below and thinner, more densely packed teeth above. The two grades of teeth served different purposes in styling the hair and beard. The wider teeth could be used to untangle the hair, and the narrower ones for smoothing it out. The more delicate teeth have been broken in several places. On both sides of the comb, the central band serves as a ground for figural carving. On one side, two affronted griffins face a central plant motif. On the other, two nude figures ride a griffin and a hippocamp, creatures frequently encountered in ancient Persian and Classical mythology. The figure on the proper left holds a club and the one on the right blows into an instrument, likely a triton shell. With these attributes, the figures recall the satyrs, nereids, and the attendants of the sea-god Triton that were ubiquitous in the visual arts of the Hellenistic and Roman world (see acc. no. 42.11.44) and demonstrate a persistent interest in classical imagery in the central Middle Ages.
The location of this comb’s production is unknown, but details of the carving and comparison with similar examples in other collections suggest it enjoyed a long history of transit and adaptive reuse. Two combs of identical shape are preserved in the Diözesanmuseum Bamberg. In his 1970 dissertation at the University of Tübingen, Franz Swoboda pointed to two further combs, one in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn and the other in the Schatzkammer of the Regensburg Dom, as comparable to the current example in overall proportions. The similar dimensions of these combs suggest this group came from the same workshop or one closely related. When first made, the current comb’s central band featured inscribed dots-and-circle motifs, remnants of which are still visible on either side of the figural carvings. According to Swoboda, the two combs in Bonn and Regensburg retain traces of similar decoration. While further suggesting a common origin for these combs, these shared features offer few unambiguous clues about the place of production. The incised dot-and-circle pattern is ubiquitous among cultures that carved ivory and bone. Indeed, medieval ivory artifacts adorned with these motifs have been recovered in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Persianate world.
All of the combs are also adorned with similar animal imagery that appears to have been applied some time later than their initial manufacture. The designs suggest affiliations with Classical and Persian heritage, such as dot-and-circle motifs, that were widespread in the Near East and the Mediterranean. Also related is a group of luxury ivory carvings that includes oliphants (Met acc. nos. 17.190.215; 17.190.219) and boxes (Met acc. no. 17.190.241). Art historians frequently associate these objects with Islamic-influenced cultural milieux in Sicily and southern Italy, but have recently argued that ivory goods of this type were desirable in many cultural and religious communities and thus they defy conclusive localization. Among the group of similar combs, there is a degree of diversity in style and approach. The figures in the current comb are flat, fill the whole of the space, and are decorated with shallow lines. The animals and vine scrolls on the Bamberg combs by contrast are rounded and three-dimensional. This disparity in approach suggests that these three combs were recarved by different artists on different occasions. The figural carving was applied at some point after the comb’s first production. Indeed, the refashioning of this comb suggests it may have passed through several hands (and perhaps long distances) before finding its current shape, and comparison to other combs of the same type suggest that the life history of the current comb follows a wider pattern of making, circulating, and refashioning luxury combs in ivory.
Eva R. Hoffman, "Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian interchange from the tenth to the twelfth century," Art History 24 (2001), pp. 17-50.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, Part II (London: V&A Publishing, 2014), pp. 609-631.
Catalogue Entry by Scott Miller, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial and Research Collections Specialist, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, 2020–2022
Victor Martin Le Roy, Paris ; Alphonse Kann French, Paris (until 1940) ; seized by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (in October 1940) [ERR inv. no. Ka 157] ; held at Munich Collecting Point [MCCP inv. no. 15/25]; returned to France (July 31, 1946) ; restituted by the Commission de Récupération Artistique to Alphonse Kann French, London (July 11, 1947) ; [ Blumka Gallery, New York (sold 1966)]
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon de Marsan. "Exposition internationale d'art byzantin," May 28–July 9, 1931.
Palazzo Venezia. "I Normanni: Popolo d'Europa 1030–1200," January 28–April 30, 1994.
Exposition internationale d'art byzantin. Paris: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon de Marsan, 1931. no. 105, p. 78.
Lasko, Peter. "The Comb of St. Cuthbert." In The Relics of St. Cuthbert, edited by C. F. Battiscombe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. no. 4, p. 351, pl. XXI.
Swoboda, Franz. "Die liturgischen Kämme." PhD diss., Eberhard-Karls-Universität, 1963. no. 41, pp. 120–22.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Ninety-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Fiscal Year 1966-1967." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 26, no. 2 (October 1967). pp. 85–86.
D'Onofrio, Mario, ed. I Normanni: Popolo d'Europa 1030–1200. Venice: Palazzo Venezia, 1994. no. 323, p. 515.
Lasko, Peter. Studies on Metalwork, Ivories and Stone. London: Pindar Press, 1994. pp. 13, 16, fig. 3, 4, [reprint of Lasko 1956].
Galán y Galindo, Ángel. Marfiles Medievales del Islam: Volume 2, Catálogo de Piezas. Cordoba: Publicaciones Obra Social Y Cultural Cajasur, 2005. no. 41037, pp. 446, 520.
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