Exhibitions/ Incisive Images

Incisive Images: Ivory and Boxwood Carvings, 1450–1800

March 13–November 25, 2007
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Small in scale but grand in impact, ivory sculpture starred in private collections throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, particularly in the courts of Central Europe, where the art form reached its apogee. The fine grain and lustrous texture of this exotic material permitted virtuoso carvers to extract maximum expression within the compact format prized for the intimate spaces of collectors' cabinets and church treasuries. The exhibition of more than one hundred works formed in ivory (and equally fine-grained boxwood), largely drawn from Museum storage, features freestanding sculptures as well as intricately carved armaments and a few lavish furnishings.

Ivory has been prized since antiquity for the creation of small sculptures. Responsive to the cutting of fine detail, it allows sculptors to realize great artistic and emotional expressiveness in a highly compressed format. The lustrous surface of polished ivory is enticing to the touch and well suited for works meant to be handled in the intimate environment of private devotion or the collectors' cabinets of the Late Renaissance and Baroque eras.

The use of ivory for important sculpture declined in the late Middle Ages, coinciding with the demise of the ivory trade between Europe and Africa following the Ottoman conquest of North Africa. European sculptors of small-scale works turned to boxwood, a medium that shares some attributes of ivory. Boxwood, native to the Mediterranean region, is dense, hard, and capable of being highly polished, with an even grain and structure that yield masterfully detailed carvings. The product of a shrubby plant, it can be sculpted only in relatively small pieces. Boxwood sculptures were prized by artists and collectors for their exoticism, rarity, and deep warm brown, often bronzy surface. Although the sixteenth century was the high point of boxwood carving, it still suited later Baroque taste and was often employed by the same artists who worked in ivory.

The renaissance of ivory carving between 1600 and the mid-eighteenth century stemmed from the renewed flow of the valuable material into the hands of European sculptors, following the opening of new maritime routes along the east and west coasts of Africa. This revival coincided with the development of the Baroque style, particularly in the Netherlands and Central Europe. Emperors and princely patrons there created court positions for ivory carvers. They and other wealthy, cosmopolitan clients supported the growing number of skilled workshops whose traditions spread throughout the area, influencing generations of sculptors.

Many artists who worked in ivory and boxwood also created monumental sculptures for churches and major civic spaces, but their small pieces are characterized by an intensity of expression that often eluded the larger works. Works commissioned for public spaces continued to be primarily religious in nature, while a growing circle of Humanist collectors were inclined to indulge a wider variety of subjects. Seeking art for display in the private arena of the Kunstkammer, they encouraged the creation of works inspired by the literature of antiquity or more recent history. As few small-scale sculptures are signed, scholars continue to try to identify the artists who made them by linking them to contracts, inventory records, and documented large-scale works.

The exhibition is made possible by The David Berg Foundation.

Exhibition Objects

During the golden age of ivory carving in the Gothic period, African ivory reached Europe through a sophisticated international trade network that had evolved in the tenth century. Tusks from the interior of the continent reached Swahili areas on the northeast coast—Mozambique, Tanzania, and Kenya—and were transported via the Red Sea and across Mamluk, Egypt, to the port of Alexandria. After crossing the Mediterranean, the raw material was distributed by Genoese and Venetian merchants throughout Europe. About 1350 the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean began to impede this trade as well as the far more significant overland routes to Asia, leading, perhaps, to the collapse of carving activity in Europe.

In the late fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers, seeking a route to Asia that would bypass Ottoman territories, traveled down the west coast of Africa, establishing trading relations with the kingdoms in Sierra Leone and Benin that had long been bringing ivory from the interior of the continent. Ivory was a prerogative of chieftainship in many parts of Africa, and uncarved tusks were often displayed at public events. The local ivory carvers also produced highly refined works of art for their own patrons. Portuguese traders acquired raw ivory and commissioned pieces from these skillful carvers for export to Europe. In the wake of initial contacts, a small stream of remarkable objects, carved with the tastes of foreign collectors in mind, made their way to the European market. After Dutch traders succeeded the Portuguese in the ivory trade in the seventeenth century, the raw material became sufficiently available to encourage the resurgence of ivory workshops and collectors in Europe, resulting in the works that constitute the focus of this exhibition.

Aside from its creamy light color, African ivory is distinguished by its extraordinary workability; its response to cutting and polishing is unique. Due to the fine crosshatched microstructure of its grain, it accepts the finest detailing and may be chiseled from almost any angle with comparatively little weakening or splintering. The gelatinous substance emitted from its pores eases cutting and yields a characteristic mellow sheen when polished.

Over the millennia, craftsmen developed specialized tools to exploit the potential of the material. Nevertheless, the form and structure of the elephant tusk imposed basic limits on the sculptor. African elephant tusks can be more than ten feet long and weigh more than two hundred pounds, yet the deep pulp cavity in the upper third of the tusk creates a hollow region and the area surrounding it is restricted to shallow carving. The process of discerning the optimal sections of the tusk and extracting the maximum usable matter was as daunting as cutting a diamond.

The tapering solid ends (rarely more than eight inches in diameter) were used for sculpture in the round. Any design that extended outside the limits of the tusk's curving form would need to be pieced together. Master carvers at the seventeenth-century European courts excelled in producing intricate compositions of one piece that conformed to the shape of the tusk.

The thinner walls of the hollow end were used for vessels such as tankards and cups or were sliced along the length of the tusk to form sheets employed for relief carving. Carvers took delight in shaving portions of their compositions to a translucent degree of thinness.

Small-scale carvings in ivory and wood were among the rare objects collected by princes and wealthy citizens of the Low Countries and Central Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of their palaces had a Kunstkammer or a Wunderkammer (chamber for art or curiosities), where their treasures were displayed. The intention was to suggest the wealth and learning of the collector and to impress guests. The rise of the Kunstkammer coincided with the European age of exploration, when collectors sought to acquire exotic materials brought home from newly discovered lands. Ivories carved by African artists were followed by virtuoso carvings that European artists made from the plentiful supply of ivory arriving on their shores.

Much as the Baroque Kunstkammer included numerous ivory carvings of profane and humanistic subjects, church treasuries amassed parallel collections of a religious nature. Small-scale devotional sculptures are often found along with liturgical textiles, ecclesiastical silver objects, and reliquaries. Many of them were carved in ivory, a medium particularly suited to the depiction of Christ's suffering. Although carvers have shown every phase of Christ's Passion with acute attention to expression and unrivaled anatomical richness, the Crucifixion is the subject that has been most persistently explored over time.