Qantara Qantara

Ivory and bone

In Byzantium

Ivory and bone are two materials that have been used since antiquity to produce both everyday and artistic objects. Similar in their organic nature and spongy consistency, which means that similar techniques must be used, these materials are employed in a complementary way and sometimes concomitantly. The main difference is in the indisputable superiority of ivory, which was rarer and more expensive; bone, from animals killed for their meat and skin, was widely and constantly available. Thus, despite certain exceptions, bone was systematically used to produce secular objects; ivory was used to produce luxury and pious objects commissioned by the Constantinople elite. Bone was used to make clothing accessories such as buttons and fibulae, medical instruments and cases, as demonstrated by the objects found during excavations in domestic or funerary contexts; it was also used to cover small objects such as handles and caskets. On the other hand, bone was considered inappropriate for religious images and was never substituted for ivory in prestigious pieces meant to convey the image of power and for the private devotion of the elite; for the elite, steatite, a soft stone renowned for its purity, offered a less costly solution. Moreover, works in ivory seemed to take on a symbolic and intrinsic value, associating image and material. It is revealing that most Byzantine ivories, particularly popular in the West from the High Middle Ages, have come down to us through religious or aristocratic treasures. Thus, the Barberini Ivory was in Gaul between the seventh century and 1625, when it was given to the legate. Likewise, the diptych of the Consul Anastasius (Cabinet des Médailles, BnF) was long on the altar of Bourges Cathedral and contained the list of the bishops of the city.

Trade and chronology

Contrary to the ubiquity of bone, ivory came to the Mediterranean region from Africa, in particular from Ethiopia by way of Egypt, as well as from India. There is no way of knowing the exact origin of the material with the exception of the large plaques such as the central panel of the Barberini Ivory, as the diameter of Asian elephant tusks never exceeded 11 centimetres. The lower panel of the Barberini Ivory, where – among the conquered peoples paying tribute – a man beside an elephant advances holding a tusk, bears witness to the supplying of the empire with Asian ivory.

After the golden age of sixth century, Byzantine ivory work picked up again in the late ninth century and flourished during the Macedonian dynasty (867–1056). Then, ivory seems to have become scarce: from the twelfth century few works are known and their origins are debated. The crisis of the seventh century might explain the shortage of ivory during this period just as the reopening of the trade routes with Ethiopia in the tenth century might have contributed to the revival of ivory work. Nevertheless, the development of the sumptuary arts during Iconoclasm and the availability of the material in the Mediterranean region after the eleventh century, during the Comnenus dynasty, mean that the use of ivory cannot be interpreted solely in terms of economic history. The blossoming of ivory work was closely linked to the renewed interest in classical culture during the Macedonian dynasty, despite the well-known differences – technical and iconographical – between the works of Late Antiquity and those of the Middle Byzantine period.  

Production techniques

Byzantine ivory carving is not very well-documented: information from texts – rare and scattered – is only partially supplemented by sources outside Byzantium and by observation of the works themselves. The analogy between ivory and bone leads one to assume that the materials were worked using similar procedures. The process began with the cutting of a block, which was then softened with heat or by soaking in a plant infusion. The surface was then evened out and shaped before the material hardened again. Polishing took place before and after carving. The decoration was executed using various techniques: carving of a bas-relief or high relief, chasing, engraving and champlevé. The tools were made out of metal and rather simple, such as those listed by the monk Theophilus in De diversis artibus: burins, scalpels, gouges, files, stylets, knives and drills, widely used by the Byzantines. The quality of the work depended on the softness of the material, the thickness of the block and the skill of the artist. During the Macedonian dynasty, the fineness of the preparation and execution resulted in an amazing resemblance between the two materials, which could be confused by the naked eye. Bone seems to have been easier to sculpt but more fragile than ivory. The execution of the decoration, not at all documented in sources and exceptionally in the traces of tools, began with a preliminary pencil drawing, whose lines were then chased. The forms were then roughed out for relief decorations, and then polished utilising other techniques also used independently: engraving, chasing and champlevé. Gilt and colours of which several ivories still preserve the traces, as well as inlays of wax and mastic in bone, and of precious stones and pearls – still visible – in the Barberini Ivory, completed the decoration.

Centres of production

The carving of ivory did not require sophisticated infrastructure and the small size of the plaques meant that the execution of the decoration was an individual task. Nothing is known about the ivory carvers’ precise working conditions. Some think that there were workshops with large teams and others that master ivory carvers were assisted by one or two apprentices.

The location of the workshops is just as tricky: Constantinople was unquestionably the main centre of production in the sixth century, and again during the Macedonian dynasty. In Late Antiquity, there were other centres in Alexandria – favoured by its location on the ivory route – Syria, Sicily and Italy. The binding of the Saint Lupicinus Gospels (Par. lat. 9384), modelled on the imperial diptychs (whose leaves were made up of five plaques), bear witness to the dissemination of Constantinopolitan models and of their imitation in Gaul. During the Macedonian dynasty, ivory work seemed to have been exclusive to the capital, intended for the court and the imperial elite. The association of bone and ivory, frequent in caskets – made of bone frames and ivory plaques – as well as technical and stylistic similarities indicate that the work was carried out by the same masters whom Anna Comnena referred to as technitai (artisans) instead of using the older word, elephantourgoi (ivory carver).

The four groups distinguished by A. Goldschmidt and K. Weitzmann are still the benchmark for the classification of Middle Byzantine ivories: linked to the ivory depicting Romanus II (rather than Romanus IV) and Eudoxia (Cabinet des Médailles, BnF), the “Romanus” group comprises a series of masterpieces featuring imperial or religious representations, such as the Harbaville triptych. Of exquisite quality, these works are distinguished by the serenity and fineness of the figures – delicate and slender – that stand out in a detailed relief and sometimes tend towards sculpture in the round. The “pictorial” group, also of great virtuosity, is characterised by the expressiveness of its compositions featuring deeply carved figures, sometimes in the round, in bustling poses and drapery. The style of the “triptychs” group, named after its compositions structured around a central figure in the middle panel, is similar to that of the two previous groups. The “Nicephorus” group, named after Nicephorus Phocas (963–69), is distinguished by a less pronounced relief and more voluminous figures. These abundant works were not, however, mass-produced: they are unique – even when inspired by common models.

The fate of ivory work remained uncertain in the following centuries; ivory was commercialised in the Byzantine sphere of influence, including Cyprus, Venice and the Holy Land. While precise attributions cannot be made for any of the works, a diptych recently discovered in a Parisian collection raised the question once more: decorated with figures of prophets and endowed with a metrical inscription in very elaborate Byzantine Greek, the work is similar to two triptychs already known, described as Veneto-Byzantine in the past, one in Warsaw and the other in Chambéry. From a mixed milieu in the first half of the thirteenth century, this group may have been executed in the Eastern Mediterranean.



In Western Europe

For the western Middle Ages, ivories were an important aspect of precious arts as part of a tradition dating back to the highest antiquity. However, the term “ivory” refers to several different materials: elephant ivory, most often, but also ivory from walrus tusks, whalebone or sperm whale bone, bone from the large terrestrial mammals, deer’s antlers etc. The use of these different materials varied throughout the centuries, according to the historical or geographical conditions which determined provisioning possibilities. Elephant ivory, white and dense, the most appreciated and sometimes the rarest form of ivory comes from the upper incisors of the Asian elephant, mainly Indian, and the oriental and occidental African elephant which has the largest teeth. If large plates may also be carved out of the cetacean bone, they are ill served by their porous aspect; deer’s antlers, cow and horse bone were often used to fashion small or utilitarian objects, such as pawns, counters and chess pieces, but the bones of terrestrial mammals were put to more noble use, the juxtaposition of plates decorating caskets and even large altar pieces. Walrus ivory, from the cold seas of Europe, is a dense material but with a slightly soapy aspect, the texture of which calls to mind elephant ivory, to the extent that they have often been confused; however walrus tusks (upper canines of the animal with a length which hardly exceeds 60 cm), being relatively narrow, only allow for small sculptures modelled in the round or embossments with reduced dimensions. These various properties explain the variety in western ivory. Furthermore, faithful to the antique tradition mediaeval ivory craftsmen decorated all these materials with encrustations or polychromy which can sometimes help date the objects.

Most ivories kept from the sixth and seventh centuries were crafted in circles close to power and have a religious or official character: it was in fact common to mark the nomination of important persons with the distribution of ivory diptychs which were also writing tablets. The Italian workshops, in Rome and Ravenna dominated in the fifth century with a style borrowed from classicism (Symmachorum-Nicomachorum diptychs, end of sixth century, Paris and London;  Probus diptychs, 406, Aosta; Stilicon diptychs, c. 400, Monza). In the sixth century, the Constantinople and eastern Mediterranean workshops distinguished themselves with an extraordinary series of consular diptychs (Areobindus, Anastasius, Magnus etc.) or imperial diptychs made up of four tables surrounding a central plate in very high relief (Barberini Ivory, c. 530-550, Paris, Louvre; empress figurines, Vienna, Florence). The Byzantine workshops also produced ivories with religious and pagan characteristics (Ariana, Paris, Cluny) or Christian characteristics (“Sacred” Diptych, Berlin; Maximin’s Throne, Ravenna; series of pyxides): conserved and admired in the western treasures, these ivories have played a significant role in the sources of Mediaeval art.

The Carolingian ivories admirably illustrate the renaissance inspired by antique models as the imperial power wished and by appropriating and renovating the iconography, style and techniques of their models they are among the major achievements of Mediaeval ivory. Two main trends occurred in the court of Charlemagne, one depending mainly on the models of the fifth century (Binding of the Dagulf Psalter, before 795, Paris, Louvre), the second referring clearly to the style of the Ravenna Throne and associated works (Lorsch Binding, Saint Michael of Leipzig). It is to the patronage of Drogo, Archbishop of Metz (823-855), half-brother of Louis the Pious that we owe the works of the “first school of Metz”, binding plates covering the Metz manuscripts (Paris, BnF lat. 9393; Temptation of Christ, Frankfurt). Despite their stylistic links to manuscripts created c. 830 for the Archbishop of Reims, Ebbo, it is circa 850-870, to the court of Charles the Bald that the magnificent ivories of the “Liuthard group" must be attributed, with deeply carved reliefs and vehement characters draped in rustling robes (Psalter of Charles the Bald, before 869, Paris, BnF lat. 1152; Crucifixion used again on the Pericopes of Henry II, Munich), which is extended by a series in a more peaceful style (Earthly Paradise, Paris, Louvre; Tournus Flabellum, Florence Bargello). In parallel, many works in a more static and monumental style can be attributed to the “second Metz school”: binding plates (Metz Crucifixions, Paris, BnF lat. 9383), but also combs (Cologne), caskets (Brunswick, Paris, Louvre) and above all the throne “of Saint Peter”, covered in ivory which is likely to have been crafted for the imperial coronation of Charles the Bald in Rome in 875.

During the Romanesque period the workshops and materials used were to multiply (elephant ivory, which became rare from the ninth century was substituted by walrus ivory, but the cetacean bone and terrestrial mammals was also replaced by deer’s antlers). However, the Ottonian ivories were carved in elephant ivory, in particular all the ivory plates (ambon, door ?) bestowed c. 968 by Otto I to the cathedral of Magdeburg (Inscription, New York, Metropolitan Museum), as well as the works of the Milanese workshops (Plate of Otto II and Theophano, Milan) of which the geometrical style incorporates strong Byzantine influences. Throughout the ninth century, the creations from various centres (Cologne, “small figures”, “master of the registrum Gregorii”), are dominated by the vigorous and original art of the  “master of Echternach” (Diptych of Moses and Saint Thomas, Berlin). It was only in the twelfth century, in Cologne, that walrus ivory and the bone were used for ambitious creations (“pointillé ivory”, caskets with applied figures). However, walrus ivory was almost exclusively used in northern countries: in England the influence of the Carolingian illuminators of the “Utrecht Psalter” (c. 1000, Virgin and Child Enthroned, London, V&A) led to a pronounced taste for linear compositions (c. 1150, Cross, New York, Cloisters), while a more geometric style was in vogue in France (Vieillards de Saint-Omer).

In the south, elephant ivory did not disappear. In Spain, the influence of the ivories of Cordova (end tenth century, Cross of S. Millán de la Cogolla) was no longer ostensible in the Romanesque creations of the court of Ferdinand I for S. Isidoro de León (c. 1060, Cross, Madrid) or in the reliquary of san Millán. In the twelfth century, links with Languedocian sculpture appeared (Emmaus Pilgrims, New York). One of the most active centres was in southern Italy where Salerno and Amalfi had close relations with Byzantium and the Middle East. On the “paliotto” of Salerno (c. 1084), the largest grouping of preserved Romanesque ivories blend Campanian and Byzantine influences, while the series of olifants where Fatimid motifs appear suggest that he Amalfi workshops employed Muslim artists.

From the thirteenth century, a decisive change resulted from the regained abundance of elephant tusks and the grouping of ivory makers with sculptors, painters and goldsmiths, above all in Paris which became the large European centre for ivory work and influenced the other European centres (England, Cologne, Italy, North of Spain, North of France etc.). Ivory makers, whose style evolved in parallel with that of sculptors and illuminators, then created new forms next to traditional production: large statuettes, in particular of Virgin and Child (c. 1260-70, Virgin of the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, Louvre), groups of statuettes (Descent from the Cross, Paris, Louvre), applied figures (Christ in outrage, Antwerp), tabernacles, triptychs, diptychs on which a more and more complex narration of the life of Christ and the Virgin developed at the end of the eighth and ninth centuries. The seductive profane ivories are of importance: mirror cases which depict lovers’ meetings, caskets which evoke knight’s tales, combs, engravings etc. C. 1400, maybe due to a lack of elephant ivory, small reliefs were more and more common, mainly with an openwork design, while throughout Europe works made up of polychrome bone tablets from the Venetian bottega of Balthazar Embriachi were in great abundance  (Altar pieces of the Charterhouse of Pavia and Poissy; caskets).

D. G –C.


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