Monday, February 13, 2012

Ivory Elephants/Elephant Ivories

 Yes!  My love for self-refentiality is finally satisfied with some elephants made from elephant ivory!

 I encountered both while slogging through the 1504/1534/1634 inventories of the treasury of Saint-Denis (the 1504 inventory is reproduced in the 1534 document which is then reproduced in the 1634 list, which remarks on any changes to the objects over the previous hundred years).  Both are listed as game pieces, probably chess pieces, that were associated with Charlemagne - although that association can't be accurate.  The more elaborate object, the one on the left, is unlikely to have been a game piece since its quite large.  And both post-date Charlemagne, the one on the right is 9th or 10th century and the other is from the 11thC.  It seems to be Italian, while the first is Indian, but also Islamic; an inscription on it identifies it as the work of one Yusuf al Bahili.  You have to wonder by what path it came to be at Saint-Denis: maybe through Spain as an intermediary?

Their association with Charlemagne may come from the fact that he had a real elephant and, relevant to the Indian/Islamic object, that elephant was a gift from the caliph Harun al-Rashid, who apparently inherited it from his predecessor, who got from an Indian ruler.  Its name was Abu l'Abbas. (See for this and more.)  So even if these ivory elephants came to Saint-Denis later, memories of Abu l'Abbas, records of him in the annals and in Einhard's life of Charlemagne, may have prompted the monks to associate them with Charlemagne.

And that association makes sense in terms of my larger reading of the appearance of ivories in the Saint-Denis inventories.  I've been reading inventories for a while now, starting with those of French kings and their family members, looking for evidences of how ivory as a material was understood in the later Middle Ages. For the kings and queens and the like, ivory is, on the one hand, a material used in precious objects for deluxe display - augmented with precious metals and dripping with jewels - and, on the other, something used for everyday, practical items - handles for knives and fans, candlesticks, boxes and buttons.  I've been teasing out where ivory religious images, in particular ivory Virgin and Child statuettes, might fit into that larger pictures and my answer is somewhere in-between; some are clearly deluxe objects, but many were objects of everyday use.  

The Saint-Denis inventory is interestingly different.  A major use for ivory documented in it is as book covers.  Some of these are old ivories - Carolingian and Ottonian pieces - used as covers for similarly old books - and this corresponds to what we know of ivory; that in the early Middle Ages one of its primary uses was for book covers.  But there are also a couple of examples of Gothic ivory diptychs that were separated and then reused as book covers, creating something new in the model of the older ivory covers already in the monastery's treasury.  One of the manuscripts that got covered this way was a copy of the works of St. Dionysus the Areopagite that was given to Saint-Denis by the Byzantine emperor after he visited there in 1401.  There are some interesting associations accumulating for ivory here.  First, an association with the past; both the new book ivory covers modeled on the old, and Dionysus the Areopagite as conflated with the monastery's founding saint and so connected with its past.  Was that new book being made to look old in order to associate it with the founder?  A second set of associations would be with imperial power, both that new ivory cover for a book given by an emperor and the ivory elephants as associated with Charlemagne - and so with both power and the past, or with the power of the past.