Friday, December 28, 2007

Medieval Nativity Scene?

Via The Times:
Books on medieval art will have to be rewritten after an ivory carving long dismissed as a forgery was confirmed as a masterpiece of the 12th or 13th century.
For more than a century, scholars could not believe that the exquisite Nativity and Last Judgment diptych was genuine. They assumed it to have been carved in the 18th or 19th centuries, when Gothic-style ivories were made. Carbon14 dating tests done in Britain and France have now placed it firmly in the 12th or 13th century.
John Lowden, of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London – where it will have its first public display next month – said: “There was nothing else like it, therefore it wasn’t medieval.”
Throughout the 20th century it was in a private collection. Its previous provenance is unknown. In 1924 it was published by the great scholar Raymond Koechlin, who thought it too architectural to be medieval.
Professor Lowden said: “If you accept as genuine something that’s a fake, you distort the historical record. If you reject something that is genuine, that does more damage to historical records. What you’re saying, in this case, is that because it’s so beautifully carved, it can’t be medieval. If it is medieval, we have to change our view of ivory carving. It is really beautiful, extraordinarily detailed and lively. It draws you in to construct a narrative.”
He pointed to details such as angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds, one of whom has been playing bagpipes: “He has taken the pipe out of his mouth and turned to express astonishment.” There are remarkable carvings of figures rising from tombs.
Two years after it was sold in Paris for €3,000 to the former owner of The Times, the late Lord Thomson of Fleet, it is now worth millions. Its first public show will be as part of an exhibition drawing on Lord Thomson’s magnificent collection formed over more than half a century. The display will feature about 45 of the finest medieval ivories.
There include statuettes of the Virgin and Child intended to stand on altars in chapels, small versions for the home and folding tablets or diptychs with scenes from the life of Christ, and a richly narrative 15th-century ivory comb, decorated with a carriage drawn by horse and mule, taking two couples to the fountain of youth.
A folding ivory tabernacle would have been used for personal devotion while travelling. Working with a block of ivory taken from the centre of the tusk, the sculptor cut away the material to form a standing Virgin and Child under a canopy supported on columns.
He then sliced thin panels off the sides and front of the block and carved them with scenes from Christ’s life in low relief. The hinged panels serve as small to protect the carved surfaces when closed and act as wings of a miniature altarpiece when open.
My scepticism about the media and their expertise means that I suspect the impact of this discovery is being somewhat exaggerated, however it's an interesting story. I'm also curious as to whether the Carbon 14 tests actually prove this to be medieval work.


Michael said...

Nope, but the combination of carbon 14 and tool marks could help. I haven't heard of someone recarving medieval ivory for such a low price, but someone might have in the 19th C. Some early medieval ivory plaques are recarved Roman ones, after all.

I may have to go see this show!!

Dymphna said...

Carbon dating is problematic. It's been spectacularly wrong before. However, who cares how old this piece is? It sounds like an amazing sight to see.

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