Humans have ornamentally carved ivory since prehistoric times, though until the 19th century opening-up of the interior of Africa, it was usually a rare and expensive material used for luxury products. Very fine detail can be achieved, and as the material, unlike precious metals, has no bullion value and usually cannot easily be recycled, the survival rate for ivory pieces is much higher than for those in other materials. Ivory carving has a special importance to the medieval art of Europe and Byzantium because of this, and in particular as so little monumental sculpture was produced or has survived.
Ivory is by no means just obtained from elephants; any animal tooth or tusk used as a material for carving may be termed "ivory", though the species is usually added, and a great number of different species with tusks or large teeth have been used. Teeth have three elements: the outer dental enamel, then the main body of dentine, and the inner root of osteo-dentine. For the purposes of carving the last two are in most animals both usable, but the harder enamel may be too hard to carve, and require removal by grinding first. This is the case with hippopotamus for example, whose tooth enamel (on the largest teeth) is about as hard as jade. Elephant ivory, as well as coming in the largest pieces, is relatively soft and even, and an ideal material for carving. The species of animal from which ivory comes can usually be determined by examination under ultra-violet light, where different types show different colours.
Eurasian elephant ivory was usually obtained from the tusks of elephants in India, and in Roman times, from North Africa; from the 18th century sub-Saharan Africa became the main source. Ivory harvesting led to the extinction, or near-extinction of elephants in much of their former range. In early medieval Northern Europe, walrus ivory was traded south from as far away as Norse Greenland to Scandinavia, southern England and northern France and Germany. In Siberia and Arctic North America, mammoth tusks could be recovered from permafrost and used; this became a large business in the 19th century, with convicts used for much of the labour. The 25,000 year-old Venus of Brassempouy, arguably the earliest real likeness of a human face, was carved from mammoth ivory no doubt freshly killed. In northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages walrus ivory was more easily obtained from Viking traders, and later Norse settlements in Greenland than elephant ivory from the south; at this time walrus were probably found much further south than they are today. Sperm whale teeth are another source, and bone carving has been used in many cultures without access to ivory, and as a far cheaper alternative;  in the Middle Ages whalebone was often used, either from the Basque whaling industry or natural strandings.
Antiquity and the Early Medieval period
Chryselephantine sculptures are figures made of a mixture of ivory, usually for the flesh parts, and other materials, usually gilded, for the clothed parts, and were used for many of the most important cult statues in Ancient Greece and other cultures. These included the huge Athena Parthenos, the statue of the Greek goddess Athena made by Phidias and the focus of the interior of the Parthenon in Athens. Ivory will survive very well if dry and not hot, but in most climates does not often long survive in the ground, so that our knowledge of Ancient Greek ivory is restricted, whereas a reasonable number of Late Roman pieces, mostly plaques from diptychs, have survived above ground, typically ending up in church treasuries.
No doubt versions of figurines and other types of object that survive in ancient Roman pottery and other media were also made in ivory, but survivals are very rare. A few Roman caskets with ivory plaques with relief carvings have survived, and such objects were copied in the Early Middle Ages - the Franks Casket in bone is an Anglo-Saxon version from the 8th century, and the Veroli Casket a Byzantine one from about 1000. Both include mythological scenes, respectively Germanic and classical, that are found in few other works from these periods.
The most important Late Antique work of art made of ivory is the Throne of Maximianus. The cathedra of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna (546-556), was covered entirely with ivory panels. It was probably carved in Constantinople and shipped to Ravenna. It consists of decorative floral panels framing various figured panels, including one with the complex monogram of the bishop.
Late Roman Consular diptychs were given as presents by the consuls, civil officers who played an important administrative role until 541, and consisted of two panels carved on the outsides joined by hinges with the image of the consul. The form was later adopted for Christian use, with images of Christ, the Theotokos and saints. They were used by an individual for prayer.
Such ivory panels were used as book-covers from the 6th century, usually as the centrepiece to a surround of metalwork and gems. sometimes assembled from up to five smaller panels because of the limited width of the tusk. This assembly suggested a compositional arrangement with Christ or Mary in the centre and angels, apostles and saints in the flanking panels. Carved ivory covers were used for treasure bindings on the most precious illuminated manuscripts. Very few of the jewelled metalwork surrounds for treasure bindings have survived intact, but reasonably high numbers of ivory plaques once used in bindings survive.
High medieval onwards
Typical Byzantine ivory works after the Iconoclastic period were triptychs. Among the most remarkable examples is the Harbaville Triptych from the 10th century with many figurative panels. Such Byzantine triptychs could only have been used for private devotion because of their relatively small size. Another famous 10th century ivory triptych is the Borradaile Triptych in the British Museum, with only one central image (the Crucifixion). The Romanos Ivory is similar to the religious triptychs but its central panel shows Christ crowning Emperor Romanos and Empress Eudokia. There are different theories about which Byzantine ruler was made for the triptych. One possible solution is Romanos II that gives the date of production between 944 and 949. It seems that ivory carving declined or largely disappeared in Byzantium after the 12th century.
Western Europe also made polytychs, which by the Gothic period typically had side panels with tiers of relief narrative scenes, rather than the rows of saints favoured in Byzantine works. These were usually of the Life of the Virgin or Life of Christ. If it was a triptych the main panel usually still featured a hieratic scene on a larger scale but diptychs just with narrative scenes were common. Western art did not share Byzantine inhibitions about sculpture in the round: reliefs became increasing high and small statues were common, representing much of the best work. Chess and gaming pieces were often large and elaborately carved; the Lewis Chessmen are among the best known.
Olifants were horns made from the end of an elephant's tusk, usually carved over at least part of their surface. They were perhaps more for display than use in hunting.
Most medieval ivories were gilded and coloured, sometimes all over and sometimes just in parts of the design, but usually only scant traces survive of their surface colouring; many were scrubbed by 19th century dealers. A fair number of Gothic ivories survive with original colour in good condition however. The survival rate for ivory panels has always been relatively high compared to equivalent luxury media like precious metal because a thin ivory panel cannot be re-used, although some have been turned over and carved again on the reverse. The majority of book-cover plaques are now detached from their original books and metalwork surrounds, very often because the latter has been stripped off for breaking up at some point. Equally they are more robust than small paintings. Ivory works have always been valued, and because of their survival rate and portability were very important in the transmission of artistic style, especially in Carolingian art, which copied and varied many Late Antique ivories.
Ivory became increasingly available as the Middle Ages went on, and the most important centre of carving became Paris, which had a virtually industrial production and exported all over Europe. Secular pieces, or religious ones for lay-people, gradually took over from production for the clergy. Mirror-cases, gaming pieces, boxes and combs were among typical products, as well as small personal religious diptychs and triptychs. The Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264) is an example of a small group of very similar boxes, probably presented by a future bridegroom to his future wife, that brings together a number of scenes drawn from medieval romance literature.
Ivory was never so important after the end of the Middle Ages, but continued to be used for plaques, small figures, especially the "corpus" or body on a crucifix, fans, elaborate handles for cutlery, and a great range of other objects. Dieppe in France became an important centre, specializing in ornate openwork and model ships, and Erbach in Germany. Kholmogory has been for centuries a centre for the Russian style of carving, once in mammoth ivory but now mostly in bone. Scrimshaw, usually a form of engraving rather than carving, is a type of mostly naïve art practised by whalers and sailors on sperm whale teech and other marine ivory, mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ivory was used for the balls for table ball games such as billiards and snooker until the late 19th century, even as they games became far more widely played. Other uses were for the white keys of keyboard instruments and the handles of cutlery, sometimes elaborately carved.
Ivory is a very suitable material for the intricate geometrical patterns of Islamic art, and has been much used for boxes, inlays in wood and other purposes. For the first thousand years of Islam the Islamic world was more prosperous than the West, and had much easier access to ivory from both India and Africa, so Islamic use of the material is noticeably more generous than European, with many fairly large caskets, round boxes that use a full section of tusk (left), and other pieces. Openwork, where a panel of ivory is cut right through for parts of the design is very common, as it is in Islamic woodwork. Like many aspects of Islamic ivory this reflects the Byzantine traditions Islam inherited. Islamic aniconism was often less strictly enforced in small decorative works, and many Islamic ivories have delightful figures of animals, and human figures, especially hunters.
India was a major centre for Ivory carving since ancient times. Murshidabad in State of West Bengal, India was a famed centre for ivory carving. A set of ivory table and chairs, displayed at Victoria Memorial, Kolkata is an exquisite example of carving done by Murshidabad Carvers. This chair is a five legged arm chair, where three legs culminate into Tiger's claw while remaining two culminate into open mouthed tiger's head. The table as well as chair has excellent perforated floral motif (jaali work) with traces of gold plating. This table and chair was presented to the museum by Maharaja of Darbhanga. The carvers of Murshidabad called solid end of the elephant tusk as Nakshidant, middle portion as Khondidant and thick hollow end as Galhardant. They preferred using the solid end of elephant tusk for their work.
Ivory carving was also prevalent in South India, especially in Mysore and Tamil Nadu, and also in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Ivory was not a prestigious material in the rather strict hierarchy of Chinese art, where jade has always been far more highly regarded, and rhinoceros horn, which is not ivory, had a special auspicious position. But ivory, as well as bone, has been used for various items since early times, when China still had its own species of elephant — demand for ivory seems to have played a large part in their extinction, which came before 100 BC. From the Ming Dynasty ivory began to be used for small statuettes of the gods and others (see gallery). In the Ching Dynasty it suited the growing taste for intricate carving, and became more prominent, being used for brush-holders, boxes, handles and similar pieces, and later Canton developed large models of houses and other large and showy pieces, which remain popular. Enormous examples are still seen as decorative centrepieces at government receptions. Figures were typically uncoloured, or just with certain features coloured in ink, often just black, but sometimes a few other colours.
By the 18th century China had a considerable market in items such as figures made for export to Europe, and from the Meiji Period Japan followed. Japanese ivory for the domestic market had traditionally mostly been small objects such as netsuke, for which ivory was used from the 17th century, or little inlays for sword-fittings and the like, but in the later 19th century, using African ivory, pieces became as large as the material would allow, and carved with virtuosic skill. A speciality was round puzzle balls of openwork that contained a series of smaller balls, freely rotating, inside them, a tribute to the patience of Asian craftsmen. See the gallery for a modern Chinese example with 54 independent spheres.
See full article: Kongo ivories
- "OB": Harold Osborne, Antonia Boström. "Ivories" in The Oxford Companion to Western Art, ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 5 October 2010 
- Osborne, Harold (ed), The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, 1975, OUP, ISBN 0-19-866113-4
- Rawson, Jessica (ed). The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, 2007 (2nd edn), British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0-7141-2446-9
- Williamson, Paul. An Introduction to Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1982, HMSO for V&A Museum, ISBN 0112903770
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ivory carving.|
- Netsuke: masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains many examples of ivory carving
- "Ivory - Carved Sculpture". Sculpture. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-09-22.
- Asian Art Digital Collection at Gettysburg College
- The Corpus of Gothic Ivories - Major on-line database of ivory sculptures made in Western Europe c.1200-c.1530, hosted by the Courtauld Institute of Art