Monday, September 9, 2013

Touching Ivory

I've been thinking about ivories for a while now.  Then, a few days ago, I got to touch some.

To explain more: I've been working on an article on ivory Virgin and Child statuettes for several years now.  Originally, it was an outgrowth of the work on Virgin and Child imagery that I was doing for the book that I've also been working on for a long time now (about 10 years).  I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Virgin and Child statues that I was encountering in museums and so I decided I would limit my work for the book on larger-scale stone and wood versions and then use some of the same contextual and theoretical framework for a separate article on ivories (for some of that thinking see this previous post).  But I quickly realized that I would also have to take into account in the difference in material and all of the differences that go with it - in size and scale, in ownership and viewership.

I started to read up on ivory and got more and more interested in the material itself and so the article began to change from one about Virgin and Childs that just happened to be made ivory, to one about ivory objects that just happened to represent the Virgin and Child.  The thing that really interested me about ivory as a material was its diversity of uses: on the one hand, for religious images/objects like these statuettes, but on the other, for functional things - boxes and mirrors, the handles of knives and fans, and little things like game pieces, dice, and buttons.  I started to wonder about how this other use for the same material might have informed medieval people's experiences of the statuettes.  And what struck me about these other things is that they are all hand-held things and so would have brought ivory into the hand, making it a material to be experienced through touch.

To write about that experience with any authority, I wanted to touch some ivory myself.  And so I asked the curator at the CMA if he had any ivories he could let me touch: the subject matter didn't matter, neither did the date, nor the condition.  He came up with several things in their education collection, two Virgin and Childs from the 17-18thC and one very damaged 14th C folding tabernacle, and I spent an hour or so touching them.

The first interesting thing to me about the experience was my reluctance to actually touch them, even though that was what I was there to do.  My first automatic response was to clasp my hands behind my back and lean in to look.  How different from the response of someone, a medieval person, for whom ivory was an everyday material, the stuff of buttons and boxes, and so one meant to be held.

Then, the curatorial assistant who was with me encouraged me to pick one up and experience what strikes her about ivories every time she handles them: their weight.  They are surprisingly heavy for their size.  I struggled a bit to lift the largest object they had brought out for me and even the small fragments from the tabernacle had a recognizable heft.  The larger Virgin and Child statuettes cannot have been lifted, held, or moved very often.  And even the smaller statuettes and functional objects would have had substance and presence in the hand as the were lifted, held, and used.  The weight would let you know the ivory object was there.

After lifting them, I spent some time running my (gloved) fingers over them and was struck by the different textures the material is capable of conveying.  It can be polished smooth.  Or it can be cut into deep depressions in irregular patterns.  Or into tight groups of parallel grooves at varying depths.  The last was probably the most interesting of textures, to me at least.  I went back and forth between wanting to move my fingers along the grooves, to almost pet the piece, and wanting to move across them, to feel their resistance to my touch.  And finally I wanted to discover the difference between the carved texture and any naturally occurring texture and so I sought out some veins.  You can feel them, they aren't just color changes, but they feel very different from the carving, much finer and much sharper.

When I was done touching, I went out into the galleries to visit the statuette above - my favorite at the CMA - and to use my experience of touching the other ivories to imagine the experience of handling this one.  First, picking it up: it is rather small, only a few inches high, but would pack quite a bit of weight into that small size, calling your attention to its presence in your hand.  It has all of the different textures: the deep openings between the Virgin's legs, the grooves on her chest, the smoother surface on the faces, but then the veining on the Virgin's face in particular.  The veining has an interesting relationship to the other textures: disrupting the smooth skin on her face, then running with the grooves on her chest, and finally countering the lines that make up the deep folds between her legs and running back into their depths.