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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.

Ancient 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 capital Nineveh.

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 to friends.

Medieval Ivories.

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.

Post-Renaissance Ivories.

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 western hemisphere.

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

Meiji Period


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

British Museum



Enthroned Virgin and Child
Elephant ivory with traches of polychromy and gilding
Paris, France, ca. 1260-1280

This statuette of the Virgin and Child was produced at a time when Paris was the principal center of ivory carving. The sensitively carved face of the Virgin generats a tender aura, presenting her as a loving mother rather than the Queen of Heaven. The head of the Christ child is a modern replacement.


Medallion with Return from a Spring Outing

Ming dynasty (1368–1644), late 16th–early 17th century
Ivory; Diam. 3 3/8 in. (8.6 cm)
Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 1993 (1993.176)

Ivory carving, which, like jade, was found in some of China's earliest cultures, flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1644–1911) due to an increased supply of the material and to widespread patronage of the decorative arts. Although its function remains unclear, this medallion is one of the relatively few examples of ivory carving that can be dated with any certainty to the Ming period.

The richly carved scene of a scholar gentleman riding in a moonlight landscape shows parallels to similar painted scenes, which helps date this medallion to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Four young attendants carrying supplies accompany the traveling scholar, while a fifth hastens to open the gateway to a family compound. Such scenes, often found in the work of court and professional painters, are understood to represent a return from a spring outing filled with wine and poetry. The blending of various flowers (lotus and peony) and auspicious emblems (jade chime and pen) on the back of the medallion also point to a date in the late Ming period.


Murshidabad, India
Ivory, carved, pierced and partly gilded, with a caned seat
Height 92.4 cm x Width 71.5 cm (approx.)
Museum no. 1075-1882

Elegant European styles of furniture were copied by Indian craftsmen using local materials, as in this ivory chair. This chair, its pair and the accompanying table are of solid ivory. They were made in Murshidabad, the nawabi capital of Bengal and a famous centre of ivory-carving. Furniture makers there made small quantities of western-style pieces, possibly only as commissions. Mani Begum of Murshidabad gave these pieces as part of a special gift to Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of India. Their western forms and exotic working reflect the blend of tastes at Indian courts at this time.


A pair of early 19th century Dieppe ivory plaques of Francis II and Mary Queen of Scots for sale by John & Lana Goddin.

This ivory carving is a gift from China presented to the United Nations in 1974. It depicts the Chengtu-Kunming railway, which was opened to traffic in 1970 and covers a distance of over 1,000 kilometers. The railway connects two Chinese provinces, Yunnan Province in the South and Szechuan Province in the North. The sculpture was carved from eight elephant tusks, and it is said that 98 people worked on it for more than two years. It is amazing for its detail - it is possible to see even tiny people carved inside the train.