Gothic Ivories Project

French, Crucifixion, ca. 1400. Ivory. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, M1967.72. Photo by John R. Glembin

It’s always exciting to be contacted by colleagues at other museums about objects in the Museum’s permanent collection.  It helps us find out more information about what we have!

In early 2010, I was contacted by Dr. Catherine Yvard, the project manager for the Gothic Ivories Project at the Courtauld Institute in London.

The goal of the project was to produce an electronic catalogue of images and information about sculptures in ivory made in Europe between 1200 and 1530, as well as modern imitations.  This database, which required the cooperation of many different institutions around the world, would give researches a powerful tool.

The last comprehensive survey of Gothic ivories was published in 1924, so you can see that an updated catalogue is overdue!

When complete, this catalog will have records of up to 4,000 ivory objects in private and public collections, including at least one image of each object.  Accessible to everyone online and free of charge, you can search the database with keywords related to topics such as iconography, provenance, and origin.

Alsace, France or Black Forest, Germany, Wild Man Chess Box, ca. 1440-70. Polychromed wood and gilded bone over an oak core. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Richard and Erna Flagg, M1991.77. Photo by John Nienhuis.

Dr. Yvard contacted the Milwaukee Art Museum because we have two Gothic ivory works in the collection.  One of the objects is a chess box that was given to the Museum by Mr. And Mrs. Richard B. Flagg in 1991, which is on view in Gallery #2. The chess box has representations of the “wild man”, a mythical figure common in Medieval literature and art.  The other important ivory in the Museum’s Collection is a panel showing a crucifixion that was purchased in 1967 (pictured at top), which is not currently on view.  I didn’t even know we had this second crucifixion ivory, and I was excited to be able to see it in storage and have it re-photographed. 

On December 15, 2010, the Gothic Ivories Project website was launched.  At least 400 objects will be accessible at this time, but regular uploads will be made as more information is found.  You can search the website here.

The Gothic Ivories Project was a huge undertaking and extremely important to art historical research, and we should be proud that the Milwaukee Art Museum is taking part.

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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