"The first exhibit devoted exclusively to ivory carving from the Gothic period in Europe (1200-1500)" will continue at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore until August 31. "Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age" displays nearly one hundred examples of the delicate carvings that appeared on objects ranging from diptychs and triptychs (altar-pieces with two and three panels) to chessboards and saddles.
The material being carved had a great influence on what medieval artists created, the exhibit reveals. A 14th-century sculpture of St. Margaret of Antioch defeating a dragon was decorated with gilded plants and vines – these followed the cracks in the ivory. By the same token, the ivory tusk's natural curve influenced artists to create swaying figures. These arching figures became so fashionable that they could be found on the portals of churches – which were made of stone.
The exhibit also shows how narrow the limits were in medieval art. Over and over, the same Biblical stories were sculpted by artists. (The exhibit assists non-Christian visitors by providing a glossary of the names of these stories.) Even within these narrow limits, though, artists found freedom to add individual touches. Two 14th-century diptychs are placed side by side; one of the diptychs may have been based on the other. Yet the earlier artist has shown only six apostles (and two women) at Jesus' last supper; the later artist has crammed in all twelve apostles (and eliminated one woman).
Fascinating images abound: Jesus releasing Adam and Eve from the (literal) jaws of hell while a demon clasps his cheeks in horror, a wise man's groom trying to tame unruly horses, a sword emerging from Christ's wounded side to pierce the heart of his mother Mary, and a death skull covered with salamanders and toads.
Equally interesting are the stories of how present-day scholars have identified the medieval works. A 13th-century figure of a man kneeling before Jesus on his cross was once thought to have been a prophet, so a scroll was placed in his hands in modern times. In fact, the figure was of Jesus' disciple Nicodemus, and other objects in the exhibit show that he must have been holding tongs with which to remove the nails in Jesus' feet.
Then there are the modern forgeries; one of these was so clumsily done that a sculpted man is missing one leg. But questions remain about this consummate art of the Middle Ages: "Was there a pattern book from which the artist and/or client could select the desired scenes?" Perhaps if the answers are found, the Walters Art Gallery will have an excuse to host another ivory exhibit.
Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201. 410-547-9000. 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Wednesday–Friday. Adults $6, seniors $4, sudents 18 and older $3, ages 6 to 17 $2, under 6 free.
"Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age." Through August 31.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson