13th century head of a crozier, showing an eagle with a book as a symbol of Saint John the Evangelist confronting a monster studded with four acanthus leaves (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, image via Wikimedia)

The last time anyone attempted to catalogue all known Gothic ivory sculpture was a three-volume publication from a French scholar in 1924, but now the Gothic Ivories Project at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art is taking a 21st century stab at it with an online database.

A 13th cent. Virgin Mary triptych that opens to show scenes from the life of Christ (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, via Wikimedia)

The project started at the Courtauld in 2008, and launched its online archive in 2010; the number of objects catalogued now exceeds 3,800, but the goal is to have over 5,000. 700 more entries were added recently, including two 14th century manuscripts embedded with ivory from the British Library, one showing Jesus on the cross, the other Arthurian tales. The focus of the Gothic Ivories Project is ivory sculpture between 1200 and 1530 with an emphasis on Western Europe, the hub of Gothic ivory in medieval times (and woe to any elephant who happened to wander that way).

Detail of a  16th cent. decaying skeleton eaten by vermin that is held in a box as a memento mori (© Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Wolfgang Meier, Museum Schnütgen)

While the majority of the petite sculptures are religious, with diptychs of Biblical scenes, numerous images of Mary and Jesus, and details from religious objects, the art form in its late Gothic years transitioned from an expensive mode of worship to a secular form of fine art. There are the backs of mirrors, handles of knives, stag horn engraved saddles, and most strikingly memento mori, where the face of the living is contrasted to the rotting visage of death, or like the one shown here (brought to our attention by Slate Vault) where a corpse is attacked by vermin as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of human life.

Yet while it is a bit of a myopic database — although a treasure trove for anyone researching Gothic art or culture — there are also fascinating aspects for the lay person to examine like 19th century forgeries, and even those works that have been loststolen, and destroyed. You can also browse by sets like “Jet of Blood” iconography (where blood is spurting from a crucified Christ’s pierced side onto Mary, apparently a popular scene to carve), religious caskets, jeweled headbands, and diptychs. Each might seem like a tiny moment in terms of broader history, but grouped in one delicately sculpted legion, the Gothic ivories are a striking tribute to an elegant form of art.

14th cent. depiction of christ by Giovanni Pisano (Victoria & Albert Museum, via Wikimedia)

The Gothic Ivories Project is accessible online.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...