History of Ivory Carvings
Art of carving ivory for ornamental or useful purposes, practiced from prehistoric to modern
times. The ivory most frequently used is obtained from elephant tusks, but other types of ivory or substitute materials include
the tusks, teeth, horns, and bones of the narwhal, walrus, and other animals, as well as vegetable ivory and synthetic ivories.
The earliest ivory carvings known were made in the Old Stone Age. The inhabitants of Europe in the Perigoridan period
more than 20,000 years ago produced great numbers of ivory, bone, and horn carvings, with nude female figures being the most
common subject. Representations of animals occur most often in the subsequent Magdalenian period.
In Egypt the art of ivory and bone carving was developed in predynastic times, before 3000 bc. Large numbers of carved figures of men and women, as well as carved combs, hairpins, and handles, have
been found in Egyptian tombs dating from predynastic and early dynastic periods. Objects found in Egyptian tombs of later
date include carved ivory weapon hilts and furniture and caskets inlaid with ivory carvings. Mesopotamian ivories frequently
show strong Egyptian influence. They include a series of tablets carved with figures in low relief, made at the ancient Assyrian
The Minoans in Crete, and later the ancient Greeks, were
noted for their ivory carvings. The Minoans carved small acrobats and snake goddesses. The Greeks were famous especially in
the 5th century bc for their chryselephantine statues, often of heroic size,
in which the flesh was represented in carved ivory and the hair and garments in sculptured gold. Among the Romans, in late
imperial times, consular diptychs of carved ivory were much in demand. A consular diptych was a two-leaved tablet decorated
with portraits and scenes commemorating the inauguration of a consul. It contained a sheet of wax for writing and was given
Ivory carving flourished under the Byzantine Empire, particularly in the 5th and 6th centuries and from the 10th
to the 13th century. Christian figures, symbols, and scenes were the subjects most often depicted on ivory book covers, icons,
boxes, shrines, crosiers, crucifixes, door panels, and thrones. A masterpiece of Byzantine ivory is the Throne of Maximilian
(6th cent., Ravenna Cathedral). Most Byzantine carvings, however, were in the form of a diptych (made up of two matching parts,
such as an altarpiece).
In Europe during the reigns of Charlemagne and his
successors in the 9th and 10th centuries, elaborately carved ivory book covers, reliquaries, and altarpieces were produced.
Relatively little ivory carving was undertaken in Romanesque Europe, but it reached great heights in the Gothic period. Gothic
ivories from the 13th to the 15th century were chiefly religious, as in earlier periods, but were more for private devotions
than ecclesiastical use. Popular objects included diptychs with deeply carved figures and elaborate architectural decoration.
Especially fine work was produced in Paris.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, ivory carving was not popular, but in the baroque and rococo periods in the 17th
and 18th centuries it again came into vogue, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. German craftsmen were known for richly
ornamented ivories; Flemish craftsmen produced statuettes and other sculpture-inspired ivory carvings. France again became
an important ivory-carving center. The chief centers of the industry were the French cities of Dieppe and Paris, where large
numbers of crucifixes and other religious objects were produced. During the 18th century, however, the demand for ivories
diminished. Ivory recovered its popularity in decorative arts in the Art Nouveau style at the end of the 19th century. Old
ivory carvings are especially valued by 20th-century collectors of ivory, but very little ivory work is now produced in the
Arabic, Far Eastern, and Other Work.
Muslim craftsmen in the Middle East created ivory inlay in intricate arabesque patterns on
furniture and other woodwork. In the Far East the best-known ivories are those of India, Japan, and particularly China. Indians
carved figures of their gods and ornate caskets, often imitating Italian styles. Japanese netsukes, small carved purse toggles,
are often made of ivory. The Chinese have traditionally esteemed ivory and encouraged their artists to work in it. The art
still flourishes today; objects created include statuettes, chess pieces, fans, screens, toilet articles, chopsticks, and
models of buildings and boats. The Chinese are world famous for their ivory curiosities, particularly the concentric ivory
balls carved one inside the other by Cantonese craftsmen. In Inuit (Eskimo), African, and American Indian cultures, carving
in ivory, horn, and bone has been practiced from the earliest times to the present day.
Finely Carved Japanese Okimono
Carved Ivory Figurine of a Dancing Woman
Indian, circa early 19th Century
African Ivory Carving of a Young Girl
Middle-East Ivory Plaque of
a Winged Sphinx