Glencairn Museum News | Number 3, 2013
Tiny and unassuming, one of Glencairn’s most precious—and most puzzling—medieval carvings is this diminutive ivory casket, a container that once held something of great value. But what, exactly, did it hold? Today the box is empty, and we can only guess at its original contents. But this is not the only mystery surrounding the object. We also wonder when it was carved, for whom it was created, and who the many figures depicted on its exterior represent. Only some of these questions can be answered satisfactorily, making this one of the most tantalizing works of art encountered at Glencairn.
The casket, which measures just under five inches long, fits easily in the hand. It consists of a rectangular container topped with a lid shaped like the pitched roof of a house. The lid pulls off to reveal a plain interior. The whole is assembled from separate panels of ivory held together with small pins, and each panel features a different relief carving framed by geometric patterns. At a slightly later point, the container was reinforced with copper alloy fastenings sheathed in a thin layer of gold.
Relief carvings decorate the casket’s exterior. On the long sides of the lid, eight figures standing under arches hold books or raise their hands as if in prayer, and their identities are unknown. They may represent any number of holy figures, such as Biblical personages, eminent scholars of the early Church, or priests, though they offer no hints to their specific identities. Curiously, two of the arches on one of the long sides frame not people, but tall staffs topped with pinwheel-like finials. This form resembles a flabellum, a sort of fan used during early Christian and medieval liturgy to keep away flying insects. Though its significance here is unclear, the depiction of a liturgical instrument seems to suggest that this box had something to do with sacred ritual. In addition, each of the lid’s short sides depicts a figure shown from the shoulders up, though the added metal clasps obscure their faces.
The images on the sides of the box are, fortunately, more recognizable. One of the box’s long sides concerns a violent—and potentially tragic—event at the center of the composition. A man with a sword holds a small, nude figure upside down by the ankle, and he stands before an enthroned man and a woman lying prostrate on the floor. A shocking depiction, this is nonetheless a Bible story familiar to many: the Judgment of Solomon. The story (1 Kings 3:16-28) relates how the wise king Solomon settled a dispute between two women both claiming to be the mother of the same child, ordering a guard to cut the child in half. Here we see Solomon, surrounded by his royal guard, pronouncing his decision, while the true mother already bows before him in supplication for her child’s life. The building depicted at the far right may represent the place in which this scene unfolds, as the small heads peeking out from above the structure indicate its inhabitation.
On the casket’s other long side, another seemingly familiar scene takes place, though the image’s recognizability is deceptive. Here, a long-haired young man rides towards a group of men carrying palms. At first glance, this would seem to depict Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But this raises a question: what is the relationship between Palm Sunday and the Judgment of Solomon? Charles T. Little, Curator of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has proposed that this carving depicts not the famous New Testament event, but a less popularly-illustrated episode also from the Book of Kings, which relates how Solomon, riding on a mule, went to the city of Gihon to be anointed by the priests Nathan and Zadok (1 Kings 1:45). On the ivory, the two figures holding books at the far left may represent these priests.
References to Solomon do not end with these two depictions. The large, two-storied building carved on one of the box’s short sides may be understood as the magnificent temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. The other short side shows three figures, including an angel, a man resembling the enthroned Solomon from the Judgment scene, and, at center, a woman (an identification based on comparison with the dress of the women from the Judgment scene). This might show Solomon’s meeting with the Queen of Sheba, who brought him many fine and costly gifts (1 Kings 10:1-15).
Despite the casket’s emphasis on Solomon’s life and deeds, it can hardly be a coincidence that the scene of the king’s arrival in Gihon resembles the events of Palm Sunday. Medieval artists and viewers loved images that could make multiple references at the same time—in essence, images capable of telling several stories at once. This was especially so because the events of the Old Testament were believed to foreshadow those of the New, giving a sense of what was to come through the advent of Jesus. The Judgment of Solomon, for example, was understood to foreshadow the Last Judgment. The story of Solomon’s arrival in Gihon thus seems to prefigure Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem, a key event preceding the Passion. As such, it is easy to imagine the casket’s medieval viewers reflecting upon the relationship between the wise Old Testament king and the New Testament redeemer.
The image’s potential to tell two stories at the same time would certainly have delighted its original owner. But who might this owner have been? The box bears no inscription or other explicit evidence that might tell us the answer. Yet the carvings’ focus on Solomon, a great Biblical king, may indicate that the casket was owned by a medieval king. Perhaps it was a gift given to a ruler upon his visit to a particular city, or even to commemorate a coronation. Medieval kings were anointed with oil when they were crowned, just as Solomon was anointed. Alternatively, by referencing the act of anointing, the box could also have been part of a church’s store of ceremonial objects. Regardless, the box’s depiction of the Temple of Solomon, along with its architectural shape, suggests that whatever was contained inside it had a sacred quality.
Though we can understand some of the casket’s imagery, and hypothesize its original uses, we continue to wonder about the date and context of its creation. The style of the carving, which includes architectural structures with horseshoe-shaped arches and simplified figures with deeply-cut eyes (some figures look like they are wearing glasses!), indicates that the box was made in northern Spain during the early Middle Ages. So far, however, it has been impossible to pinpoint a narrow date range for its manufacture. Some scholars have suggested it could have been made by the Visigoths, who ruled Spain until the early eighth century, and if this is the case, that would make this ivory a unique survivor of early Christian art in Spain. Alternatively, it could have been made by those Christians sharing the land with Muslims after the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711.
The casket’s origin in Spain nonetheless signals that its materials made it a precious item. Ivory was costly and rare, and it had to be imported. Many of the elephant tusks used for such sculptures in the Iberian Peninsula are believed to have come from sub-Saharan Africa, eventually making their way north through Mediterranean trade routes. Still, the availability of ivory varied over the course of the Middle Ages. There were periods during which raw elephant tusks were nearly impossible to come by, though animal bone could also be carved, and this material offered similar aesthetic qualities. Nonetheless, ivory appears to have been in plentiful supply in Spain during the tenth century, where it was lavishly sculpted in the royal courts of the peninsula’s Muslim-ruled territory. Was Glencairn’s box also a result of the ready availability of ivory during this period?
Small, easily transported objects such as this little box have often experienced adventures that we can only imagine, and the casket does seem to have had an eventful “life” beyond its moment of creation. At some point during the medieval period, it appears to have made its way to France, where it is believed to have formed part of the treasury at the abbey of Saint-Evroult-d’Ouche. One thing we do know for certain, however, is that in 1955 Raymond Pitcairn allowed the casket to be lent to the Cloisters in New York City for an exhibition. There, some 70,000 visitors feasted their eyes upon this rare treasure of the early medieval world. Its monumental role in the history of medieval art is clear, even though its story remains mysterious.
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