Medieval Carved Ivories At The Courtauld Gallery Somerset House

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 02 January 2008
a photograph of a carved head

Memento mori from a string of prayer beads, with the inscription: ‘AINSI SERONS NOUS WI OU DEMAIN’ (So shall we be, today or tomorrow).South Netherlands, c. 1500-1525. Courtesy, the Thomson collection

Exhibition preview: Courtauld Gallery, London, from Jan 10 to March 9 2008

A selection of over 45 remarkable medieval carved ivories featuring everything from worm eaten skulls to frolicking nudes is to go on display in the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House, London.

Loaned by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the pieces have been selected from the medieval art collection of the late Kenneth Thomson, Lord Thomson of Fleet and Northbridge and include most types of medieval ivory carving.

The display features an array of examples, including large statuettes of the Virgin and Child intended to stand on altars in chapels, together with small versions for private use in the home, and folding tablets or diptychs with scenes from the life of Christ carved in relief.

a photograph of a carved ivory folding diptych

Ivory diptych with the Nativity and Last Judgement, 14th century. Courtesy the Thomson collection

Alongside these are beautiful carved writing tables, boxes and caskets, combs, hair parters, mirror cases with scenes of romantic encounters between young men and women and a rare set of carved serving knives with fabulous beasts decorating the ivory handles.

Also included is the astonishingly carved Nativity and the Last Judgement, which until recently had been dismissed as a forgery, such was its degree of accomplishment.

Scholars had assumed it to be a 19th century gothic carving ‘too good to be medieval’ but now, thanks to carbon dating, the ivory has been dated to the 12th or 13th century - forcing experts into a rethink.

a photograph of an ivory comb with a carved centre showing figures in a carriage

Ivory comb, 15th century, Journey to the Fountain of Youth. Courtesy the Thomson collection

Visitors will be able to make up their own mind when they see the elaborately carved figures rising from their tombs – and they will be helped in their appraisal by the presence of the magnificent Dormeuil Diptych of the Passion of Christ.

Made in the Paris workshop of the Passion diptychs, which was responsible for some of the finest ivory carvings of the 14th century, it is the largest Passion diptych recorded, measuring 24.7 cm by 31.4cm when opened. It was last exhibited in 1913.

Highlights of the many secular ivories on display include a mid 15th century narrative comb showing two couples being transported to the fountain of youth, where they frolick naked in the waters. Those with more macabre taste will be drawn to a series of grisly memento mori beads designed to remind the owner of their own mortality. They show heads on one side and worm eaten skulls on the other.

a photograph of a carved skull with worms crawling across it

Memento mori from a string of prayer beads, with the inscription: ‘AINSI SERONS NOUS WI OU DEMAIN’ (So shall we be, today or tomorrow). South Netherlands, c. 1500-1525. Courtesy the Thomson collection

Such exceptional and detailed carving is testament to the skills of medieval craftsmen as ivory, which was usually sourced from African elephants and is one of the hardest and most resistant materials to carve.

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