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Ivory: A natural material reflecting the purification from sin

Detail, ivory, ebony and malachite crucifix.Detail, ivory, ebony and malachite crucifix.

On April 30, 2016, a huge bonfire was set alight in Nairobi where €99 million worth of poached elephant tusks, thought to result from 6,000 illegally slaughtered elephants, went up in flames. Many believe that as long as a legal ivory market exists there is no way poached ivory can be prevented from entering world markets. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s April 2016 actions were accompanied by a demand for an end to international ivory sales. France responded immediately with a complete ban on French soil; other countries followed suit. The two largest markets for ivory, the US and China have since announced a near total ban of trade in ivory.

At this point in the religious calendar, as we turn to reflections of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, we frequently observe the use of ivory as a sculptural medium; its nature and symbolism make it particularly appropriate for this purpose. It is an easily carved material, and being a natural material akin to bone its anatomical references gives it a visceral quality that resonates with corporeal suffering.

Ivory carving is generally taken to be the carving of tusks of animals such as elephants or walruses. Other similar natural materials such as animal tooth can also be carved.

Ivory, ebony and malachite crucifix.Ivory, ebony and malachite crucifix.

Ivory has been utilised since antiquity for prestigious objects intended for worship. Its use spanned many cultures and eras from pre-history through to Roman, Byzantine, and on to the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Unfortunately, not many Byzantine (7th to 9th century AD) ivory carvings have survived, however reliefs originating in the 10th and 11th centuries can be found in museum collections. Many of the carvings of this period depict stern, monumental, classicised figures; in later times these representations developed more naturalistic, tranquil postures, showing elongated forms with gently flowing drapery. During the Carolingian renaissance in northern Europe, carved artefacts were inspired by the beliefs held in the Christian Roman Empire and represented scenes from the New Testament, including the crucifixion of Christ. Ivory carvings were often used to decorate the covers of religious psalters.

From the Romanesque (12th century) and on through the Gothic period, ivory carvings of figures became rare as interest shifted towards architectural motifs; some of the ivory artefacts created during these periods took the form of diptychs and triptychs. During the Renaissance, ivory carving regained popularity and started to be used for objects with romantic connotations; as the artists’ confidence and skill increased the items produced became more intricate and included inlaid works. Seventeenth century Germany and Flanders witnessed a reawakening in the interest in ivory objects produced by highly skilled artists who specialised in elaborately carved figures.

Ivory crucifix, Casa Rocca Piccola Collection.Ivory crucifix, Casa Rocca Piccola Collection.

There are many ivory artefacts in local collections, including crucifixes or reliquaries. As with the crucifixes illustrated here, the figure of Christ, the scroll with the letters ‘INRI’, and the skull with crossed bones beneath the figure of Christ are all carved in ivory and are generally placed onto a dark background for added effect. The figures of Christ are carved with meticulous attention to detail. The realistic details reflect the agony of Christ: the bone structure, the expressive eyes, the open mouth with individually carved teeth, and drops of blood.

The largest ivory crucifix (approx. 800mm high and 600mm wide) in Malta is displayed in the Mdina Cathedral Museum, and is attributed to the sculptor Gian Francesco Bologna. It was acquired from the spoils of Pope Pius VI and was donated to the Cathedral in 1834 by Canon Treasurer, Giuseppe Caruana.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the smallest examples of an ivory crucifix, at approximately 35mm tall, can be seen at Casa Rocca Piccola. This unusual example was probably carved out of a fragment of tusk and shows Our Lady praying at the base of the Cross.

Two other fine examples illustrated here are most likely late 18th century or early 19th century. One shows Christ in agony, open-mouthed and eyes turned towards the heavens. The ivory figure, showing the patina of age, is mounted on a silver-edged wooden crucifix. The other shows an intricately carved ivory figure of Christ mounted on a cross of richly decorated ebony, malachite and gilt bronze.

In all these cases the contrast is striking. The cream coloured ivory, symbolising purity and cleanliness, is placed on a dark wood or ebony cross; the visual contrast echoing the metaphorical contrast of light versus dark: Christ versus sin. They embody the Easter message, the triumph of good over evil.

Miniature ivory crucifix, Casa Rocca Piccola Collection.Miniature ivory crucifix, Casa Rocca Piccola Collection.

As with all natural materials, ivory deteriorates with time and the rate at which it ages depends on the surrounding environment. Ivory is sensitive: it bleaches on exposure to light; it shrinks and cracks in low relative humidity; it warps and swells in high relative humidity; it expands and contracts due to heat fluctuations; and it stains easily, due to its porosity. Natural oils, corroding metals as well as coloured materials may all contribute to staining the ivory. Some ivories tend to darken naturally due to the deterioration process of the organic constituents.

Ivory should be handled with clean cotton gloves or oil-free washed hands. The best way to preserve it is to keep it in a stable environment and away from natural light. It should not be washed with commercial products, just dusted gently with a soft dry brush. Any items that are fragmented, dirty or powdering should be taken to an academically trained conservator-restorer specialised in such materials.

To conclude, ivory artefacts need to be best preserved keeping in mind their religious, artistic, technical and historical significance, as well as the process of their formation and production. Ivory is also valued for its symbolism, a feature illustrated by Daniel Mason: “…white. Like a clean paper, like uncarved ivory, all is white when the story begins”. So also in a religious context, Easter time is our opportunity to be reborn spiritually.

James Licari is a conservator-restorer of cultural heritage with an MSc in cultural management. He is president of The Malta Association of Professional Conservator-Restorers, vice-president of The International Council of Museums and hon. secretary of The International Council of Monument and Sites.

Chris Grech is an associate professor of Architecture and founding director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Design programme at The Catholic University of America's School of Architecture and Planning in Washington, DC, USA.

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