The city of Constantinople was the foremost center of commerce and trade in Europe until the ascent of competitive centers on the Italian peninsula during the thirteenth century. The riches of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia poured into the city’s warehouses, to be either sold or transformed by local artists into works of art. One of the most sought after products was ivory, the majority of which arrived via Egypt from sources in East Africa.
The allure of this substance is easily understood: its smooth, tactile quality and creamy color made it ideal for the creation of luxury goods. Furthermore, although ivory is easily carved, it does not warp, and its density makes it less prone to breakage than many types of wood.
Some of the most emblematic objects for which ivory was employed during the Byzantine period were consular diptychs, pyxides, icons (either as single panels or configured into diptychs or triptychs), and finally caskets made for either secular or religious purposes. The Metropolitan Museum possesses an important collection of works that illustrate each of these genres of Byzantine courtly culture.
Consular diptychs consist of two plaques of ivory attached to one another by hinges, forming a booklike object. The exteriors were carved and inscribed; the interiors contained shallow recesses into which a thin layer of wax could be poured, upon which text could be inscribed with a stylus. The function of these diptychs was to announce an individual’s nomination to the rank of consul. Although by the sixth century this position was merely symbolic, one of the consul’s duties was to finance chariot races and other forms of lavish entertainment for the general public. At celebrations for Justinian’s first assumption of the consulate, for example, the equivalent of 4,000 pounds of gold was spent for the animal displays and races alone. The consuls appealed to the masses through these diversions, acquiring popularity and thus building a base for the acquisition of political power.
The ceremonial presentation of consular diptychs was a custom inherited from Rome, and this tradition continued after the transfer of the capital of the empire to Constantinople under Constantine the Great in 324 A.D. The complexity of the design and the carving of consular diptychs were linked to the status of the person receiving the gift (17.190.52,.53). The language used on these panels underscores an interesting fact about the milieu from which they emerged: although Constantinople was in the heart of the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman empire, the official language of the court and the legal system still remained Latin as late as the sixth century.
Pyxides, or covered boxes, were another type of object typically created from ivory, in this case the transverse sections of the elephant’s tusk. The key to understanding the function of a pyxis hinges on the type of imagery carved in relief on its exterior. Pyxides bear scenes from both pagan mythology and Christian imagery (17.190.57). Examples with images of Christ healing the ill were probably used to conserve the Eucharistic elements. The use of examples with pagan imagery is not known, although such containers probably held personal objects such as cosmetics or jewelry. It is theorized that pyxides were carved in the Byzantine provinces in North Africa or Syria-Palestine. Unfortunately, the provenance of most known examples is murky.
Although the supply of ivory arriving in Byzantium was constant between the fourth and the sixth centuries, there were fluctuations in its availability, and it seems to have been quite scarce between the seventh and ninth centuries. This dearth may have been caused by the Arab conquest of Byzantine territories in North Africa, Syria, and Palestine, which interrupted trade relations, or it may have been a consequence of the overhunting of elephants.
At approximately the same time as these setbacks occurred, the Byzantine empire was rocked by an internal religious controversy concerning the creation of religious imagery, in particular, icons. The rise of Islam and its ascent against Byzantium led to reflection as to whether the use of icons had caused God to chastise the empire with the loss of rich territories. The period between 711 and 843 saw the widespread destruction of various types of figural imagery; these were sometimes replaced with the only image deemed acceptable, the Cross. Only a fraction of the religious art created before this period of iconoclasm has survived at isolated outposts of the empire, such as the Monastery of Saint Catherine’s on Mount Sinai.
However, the popularity of icons was so engrained in Byzantine society that it is no surprise that their use was eventually proclaimed valid and legal. The production of religious images in the medium of ivory reached a high point from the tenth to the eleventh century (17.190.44; 17.190.103). Whether this revival of religious imagery created in luxury materials was a coincidence, or whether it constituted a strong affirmation of the legitimacy of creating images of Christ and his saints, cannot be answered. The popularity of ivory was abetted by the reestablishment of trade relations with the Islamic rulers of Egypt and generally improved economic conditions within the empire.
Ivory was not only employed for religious purposes. Boxes decorated with secular imagery were created for private use as well. In the Museum’s collection, a casket with warriors and dancers (17.190.239), carved circa 1000–1100, is a notable example of a piece intended for such nonreligious purposes. Approximately 125 such caskets are extant in varying conditions, 50 with secular themes. These caskets represent the single most important type of Byzantine secular art to have survived.
Ivory plaques (17.190.44) were pre-produced in multiples; subsequently, the finished components were configured to produce the finished object. Ivory plaques and repetitive decorative passages, such as sequences of rosettes, which were carved from bone, were attached to a wooden core with pegs. The use of bone together with ivory is notable as this indicates that either supplies of ivory were limited, or that an attempt was being made to keep the prices of these luxury objects affordable.
During the last phase of the Byzantine state, spanning the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the supply of ivory seems to have been extremely limited. The few carved examples that do survive are small; for example, a pxyis from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (no. 36–24) dated 1403–4, with representations of royal figures, is only 1 3/16 inches high. The shortage of ivory forced artists to experiment with other materials for the production of luxury objects; icons were carved out of steatite, for example, or formed from mosaic. While Byzantium’s political fortunes were waning, ivory carving experienced a florescence in western Europe, particularly in the Île-de-France. It is possible that the ivory supply was being diverted to markets in the more economically and politically vibrant states of western Europe.