Ivory Carving
History, Characteristics of Ivories: Techniques, Plaques, Ivory Reliefs.

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Barberini Diptych (c.500-550)
Louvre Museum, Paris.
Detail of the central panel
showing the triumphant emperor.

For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

Ivory Carving (35,000 BCE - present)


What is Ivory? Characteristics, Uses
The Ivory Trade
Ivory Carving Techniques
History/Traditions of Ivory Carving
- Stone Age
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Greece
- Rome
- Early Christian
- Byzantine
- Anglo-Saxon
- Carolingian and Ottonian
- Romanesque and Gothic
- Decline in the West (1400-present)
Ivory Carving in the East
- Islam
- India
- China

Close-up of Queen Figurine from the
12th-Century walrus ivories, known as
The Lewis Chessmen.
British Museum.

Introduction: What is Ivory? Characteristics, Uses

Ivory is a type of dentine - a hard, dense bony tissue which forms most of the teeth and tusks of animals - which has been used for millennia as a material for carving sculpture (mostly small-scale relief sculpture or various types of small statue) and other items of decorative art (such as carved ivory covers for illuminated manuscripts, religious objects, and boxes for costly objects), as well as a range of functional items (piano keys, billiard balls). Ivory was valued by both artists and patrons for its rarity, exceptional durability, and was especially prized among sculptors for its creamy colour, smooth texture and soft sheen. The art of ivory carving (including scrimshaw engraving) has been part of the cultures of many different civilizations including those of Egypt, Ancient Greece, Rome, Russia, Japan, China, and India. In addition it was an integral element in the plastic art of Islam, the Medieval Carolingian and Ottonian eras, as well as the Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance periods. It also features in American Indian art, notably of the Inuit and northwest USA. Although less common than bronze or marble sculpture, ivory carving has produced some of the greatest sculptures in the history of art. The fact that ivory - unlike other precious materials - cannot be melted down or re-used was a major factor in its endurance as one of the most specialized of traditional crafts.



The Ivory Trade

As far as prehistoric art was concerned, mammoth tusks and reindeer horn were the most commonly used types of ivory. Since then, elephant ivory has predominated, with appalling consequences for the African elephant in particular. In 1831, the demand for ivory in Britain, alone, led to the deaths of an estimated 4,000 elephants, while during the decade of the 1980s, roughly 70,000 African elephants a year were killed for their tusks. Today, thanks to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), ivory carving is now illegal in most circumstances around the globe. Since 2007, as a result of pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, all ivory products, including carvings and sculptures, have been banned from eBay. The illicit ivory trade continues, however, so looking ahead, one can only hope that vegetable ivory (the nickname for a type of hard nut found in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru) will gradually replace the use of animal tooth and tusk ivory from endangered species.

Ivory Carving Techniques

Ivory carving tools and methods changed little up until the end of the 19th century. Carvers used an adz, axe or chisel for stripping the outer rind from the tusk, then a saw for cutting the tusk into manageable sections and then an implement known as a float to pare the surface. Only then would the carver resort to his fretsaws, gauges and hand chisels in order to actually carve the piece. All this changed, however, around 1900, when power-driven rotary saws and dental-type drills were introduced. These fast, powerful, labour-saving machine tools revolutionized ivory carving and, by 1950, were in widespread use around the world.



History/Traditions of Ivory Carving

Stone Age Ivories
Although wood carving was the main type of prehistoric sculpture, little evidence of it survives, due to its perishable nature. But Stone Age art does feature a wide range of works carved from tusks and bone, as exemplified by the Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura (c.33,000-30,000 BCE) - a variety of human and animal figures found in a number of different Paleolithic rock shelters, including the famous Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.38,000 BCE). Other well known examples of this type of Paleolithic art include several of the mysterious Venus figurines, such as the Venus of Hohle Fels (35,000 BCE), the Venus of Brassempouy (23,000 BCE), the Venus of Kostenky (22,000 BCE), the Avdeevo Venuses (20,000 BCE), the Zaraysk Venuses (c.20,000 BCE) and the Mal'ta Venuses (20,000 BCE). For a later Russian ivory carving, see: Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE).

Ancient Egypt (c.5500-700 BCE)
Carvings from elephant ivory and hippopotamus teeth appeared at a very early stage in Egyptian sculpture (c.5500 BCE onwards), especially during the Naquada I Period (4000-3500 BCE) of Neolithic art. Noted works have included: statuettes of King Khufu, relief sculptures engraved on ivory slabs, decorative items like casket inlays, amulets, and a range of utensils. Ivories were also carved in Mesopotamian sculpture (3000-500) - see Carved Ivory Lid of a Syrian Cosmetics box (1250, Louvre Museum, Paris). The Egyptian traditions of ivory carving in relief and ivory inlays/overlays were developed further by Phoenician artists (see for instance Lioness Devouring a Boy, c.800 BCE, British Museum, London), by Syrian artists (see for instance the Cosmetics Box Lid, c.1250 BCE, Louvre Museum, Paris), and by Minoan and Mycenean sculptors, during the period (c.1700-700 BCE). Note: In China, during this period, jade carving was the most prestigious form of carving.

Ancient Greece (c.500-100 BCE)
Ivory carving was a regular feature of Greek sculpture, although few ivories of any significance have survived. However, known masterpieces include the large-scale Chryselephantine sculpture (made from ivory, for the flesh parts and whites of the eyes, and gold for clothes) made by Phidias (c.488-431 BCE), the foremost Greek sculptor of the period. These included the statue of a seated Zeus in the temple at Olympia, and the figure of the Greek goddess Athena in the Parthenon at Athens.

Rome (c.100 BCE - 300 CE)
Roman sculpture was designed to encapsulate the glory and grandeur of Ancient Rome, and thus focused on large scale historical reliefs, imperial statues and busts. As a result, Roman sculptors added little to the tradition of ivory carving, except for the production of a number of personal ivory plaques, or hinged panels (in diptych style) - a sort of ancient business card issued by the Consuls. (A typical example is, for example, the Plaque from the Diptych of Consul Areobindus, 506 CE, National Museum of Middle Ages, Paris.) During the era of early Christian art (c.150-550), these engraved ivory panels were adapted by Christian sculptors, for use as devotional items.

Early Christian Ivories (c.300-450)
Persecution of the early Christians compelled early Christian sculpture to be small-scale and portable, a form to which ivory was ideally suited. Moreover, the Old and New Testaments of the Bible provided carvers with a rich source of iconographic imagery, as exemplified by the Brescia Casket (c.300-400 CE). Indeed, from hereon, small-scale religious images dominated ivory carving up to the Renaissance era.

Byzantine Ivory Carving (c.450-1100)
The sack of Rome (c.450) left the Eastern Roman capital of Byzantium (Constantinople) as the centre of Christianity and Christian art. This Eastern Orthodox world of Byzantine art continued to disapprove of large-scale religious sculpture and therefore embraced smaller-scale ivory carving. See, for example, the figurative masterpiece Ariadne and Her Cortege (510 CE, National Museum of Middle Ages, Paris) and the Barberini Diptych (c.500-550, Louvre Museum, Paris). A major work of religious art, from this period, made in Constantinople and shipped to Ravenna, is the Throne of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna (546-556). (See also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.) No important Byzantine ivory carving has survived from the period (c.600-800), although there are a number of magnificent surviving reliefs from the 10th and 11th centuries, as well as several outstanding triptychs. These include the Harbaville Triptych (c.900-1000) and the Borradaile Triptych.

Anglo-Saxon Ivory Carving (c.700-900)
If Constantinople continued to disapprove of large-scale religious sculpture, things were different in the West. Beginning with the culture of King Charlemagne at Aachen, ivory carving lost its dominance while monumental sculpture gradually became more important. Even so, small-scale sculpture in metalwork, bone and ivory was still popular among Anglo Saxon artists, who created works using imported walrus and whale ivory, as exemplified by the Franks Casket (c.700-800). This work contains an extraordinary mixture of pagan, historical and Christian imagery, with inscriptions in Old English and Latin. Another Anglo-Saxon masterpiece, which illustrates the trend away from small scale reliefs and the like, is the set of walrus ivory Lewis Chess Pieces (c.1175, British Museum, London).

Carolingian (750-900): Ottonian (900-1050)
Walrus tusks remained a popular feature in Carolingian art. Carvers turned them into religious objects such as crucifixes, reliquaries and other containers for holy relics, as well as cover panels for illuminated manuscripts and prayer books. These traditions were maintained and developed during the era of Ottonian art. Examples include the Carolingian ivory plaques David and St Gerome (c.790, Louvre Museum, Paris) and St Gregory with His Scribes (c.865, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and the Ottonian ivory relief sculptures Otto I Presenting a Model of His Church to the Enthroned Christ (c.965, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Coronation of Emperor Otto II and Theophanu (c.982, National Museum of Middle Ages, Paris).

Romanesque and Gothic (1000-1400)
Fine art changed direction during the period of Romanesque art and the subsequent era of Gothic art. The emphasis on decoration of religious and ecclesiastical objects was supplanted by a focus on architectural decoration, triggered by the new and widespread building of cathedrals and monastic churches. Stone sculpture, monumental painting and stained glass art now took centre stage, while ivory sculpture was seen as a minor art, albeit a highly specialized one. It was during this period that Paris became the leading centre for ivory carving, exporting works throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, including gaming pieces, small boxes, devotional diptychs, crucifixes, plaques, and other utilitarian objects. (A typical Romanesque religious plaque is the Journey to Emmaus and the Noli Me Tangere, 1120, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.) Other centres of medieval ivory engraving were Dieppe (France) and Erbach (Germany).

Decline in the West (1400-present)
As you might expect, Renaissance sculptors (1400-1600) took ivory carving to a new level of sophistication, although demand remained stagnant. This was partly because of the greater availability and lower cost of wood which became the leading medium for small sculpture, especially north of the Alps, under master carvers such as Veit Stoss (1445-1533), Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531) and Gregor Erhart (c.1470-1540). A brief revival in ivory carving occurred in Germany and Flanders during the period of Baroque sculpture, during the 17th century, but it slumped once more during the 18th and 19th centuries, and has not recovered since, despite the growing demand for functional items. As a semi-illicit technical craft it continues to flourish in certain areas of the world, though its aesthetic worth is minimal.


Ivory Carving in the East

From the time of Muhammad onwards, if not before, ivory was an idea material for the intricate abstract patterns favoured by Islamic art, and was used extensively in the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Spain. The relative prosperity of the Islamic world coupled with its easier geographical access to both African and Indian ivories allowed its carvers to produce larger pieces, frequently incised with geometric, floral and zoomorphic arabesques.

Although ivory carving has been practiced in India for more than 4,000 years, few carved pieces have survived to illustrate this tradition. Those that have, however (see for instance, the mythological figure of the Hindu god Ganesha, c.1400, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), display imaginative designs, exquisite craftsmanship and a profligate use of precious materials! The main centres for ivory carving in India included Murshidabad, Mysore, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Although ivory is not considered quite as prestigious as other materials, such as jade or rhinoceros horn, ivory carvers have been active in China since before the era of Shang dynasty art (18th-12th century BCE) - see for instance the Shang ivory and turqoise goblets in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. Elephants roamed the forests around the Yellow River for millennia until they became extinct during the Sung dynasty, so artists had easy access to a regular supply of tusks. During the Han Dynasty (206-220 CE) ivory tablets became a regular feature of formal dress, and even grew in size during the T'ang (618-907) and Sung (960-1279) dynasties. During the era of Ming dynasty art (1368-1644), ivory was used to create small statuettes of the gods and other figures. See also Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (c.100-present). During the era of Qing dynasty art (1644-1911), when Beijing and Guangzhou established themselves as the leading centres of Chinese ivory carving, the craft became more intricate and widespread. Objects carved included decorative handles, brush-holders, table screens, cylindrical brush boxes, as well as a wide range of delicately carved figurines, often coloured with stains and lacquers. Later, Chinese carvers produced snuff bottles, stands for porcelains, perfume boxes, accessories for opium smokers, as well as Mah-Jong sets and seals.


Examples of Ivory Carving can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world, notably the Louvre Museum, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

• For more about the crafts of ivory tusk and tooth carving, or scrimshaw, see: Homepage.

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