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900-1200
Mirror case, Germany (possibly Cologne), about 1350, elephant ivory. Museum no. 220-1867, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Mirror case, Germany (possibly Cologne), about 1350, elephant ivory. Museum no. 220-1867, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During this period, ivories were produced all over Europe, often in monasteries and ecclesiastical or royal courts. often ivories were used for liturgical purposes. Ivory carvings appeared on book covers, reliquary caskets, antependia (the panel in front of an altar) and religious icons.

1300-1400: Religious & secular subjects

During the 14th century specialist ivory craftsmen carved both secular and religious objects in great numbers. Although Paris was the main centre of production, other workshops emerged in Italy and Germany. Some of the craftsmen may have been trained in Paris as their work often combines French and local styles.

Plaques were normally arranged in diptychs or triptychs (used for devotional purposes). Diptychs consisted of two tablets hinged together, while triptychs were two tablets hinged on either side of a central tablet. The smaller ones were probably held in the hand and opened like a small book, while the larger ones would have stood open on a table or altar.

1600-1800: Mythological subjects

Ivories were often produced to show scenes and figures from classical literature. The monochrome colouring of material meant that these ivories could ape in miniature the ancient marbles much valued by connoisseurs and collectors of the time.

1600-1800: Portraits

Portraits in ivory were fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries. Generally elephant or walrus ivory was used. Since the pieces were limited in size the portraits tended to be small, yet they could still be monumental in form.


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Medieval Ivory Carvings 1200-1550 (Hardback)

Medieval Ivory Carvings 1200-1550 (Hardback)

The V&A's collection of ivory carvings from the period 1200 to 1550 is one of the most important in the world, and this is the first catalogue of …

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Visit the V&A exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty