A knight crawls across a sword-shaped bridge while he is pelted with swords and arrows. A maiden cradles a unicorn’s head in her lap while a hunter pierces the unicorn from behind with a spear. Knights attempt to invade a castle yet are pelted with flowers by the castle’s female inhabitants. A man spies on two lovers from his hiding place within a tree.
What do these scenes have in common? They are just a few examples of the images that adorn a lavish ivory box created in late medieval France.
Just as today’s pop culture can be found repeated across a wide variety of visual formats—movies, comic books, clothing, and memes, to name a few—so it was in the Middle Ages. Popular romances such as the legends of King Arthur and the Romance of the Rose were retold in a plethora of visual adaptations: illuminated manuscripts, textiles, architectural ornament, and small-scale sculpture, such as the ivory box currently at the Walters Art Museum whose imagery is described above.
Ivory composite caskets—tokens of affection
The ivory box discussed in detail here is one of eight surviving ivory composite caskets. It is composite because the scenes that are carved into relief on its sides and lid hail from a variety of medieval stories and traditions. It is a casket, coming from the French term “coffret,” which translated means casket, but more generally means box; here, it has no connection to death. Far from being a macabre object, such ivory boxes are thought to have played a material role in medieval courtship, possibly given as a gift from one lover to another as a token of his or her affection. About the size of a modern-day jewelry box, these caskets could have held valued trinkets, such as love letters, jewelry, locks of hair, or other small objects of personal significance.
That this ivory casket is one of eight with near identical imagery suggests several ideas to art historians. First, the eight caskets were produced in the same time period and place, likely Paris, a major center of ivory production in fourteenth-century France. As an artistic material, ivory was valuable and highly sought after. Imported during the later Middle Ages from eastern Africa, ivory was used by skilled artisans to render a variety of small scale sculptures, from boxes and statuettes to mirror cases and combs. The close similarities in the subject and style of the caskets’ imagery may point to their creation within a single medieval workshop, or among a group of artisans who were influenced by each other’s work. In addition, the repetition of these scenes of daring deeds and romantic love across the eight caskets suggests that such imagery was popular among a courtly medieval audience.
Late medieval household inventories are evidence that carved ivories were owned by members of nobility and royalty, such as Jean, the Duke of Berry and Clémence of Hungary, Queen of France. Such socially elevated, and therefore educated, patrons would certainly have been aware of and able to “read” the multivalent and playful imagery carved into the caskets, thanks to their familiarity with both the literary texts and oral traditions of the romance genre.
Furthermore, whereas today we distinguish between the sacred and the secular, or the religious and the irreligious (think of the separation between Church and State), this was not the case in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, medieval images of Christian devotion could be found alongside images of mortal life, such as romantic love. This intertwining of Christianity and romance underpins the imagery found on the eight composite ivory caskets.
Fighting for her favor
The Walters Art Museum casket’s lid is decorated with a very busy scene divided into two parts. The metal fastenings that hold the casket together also divide the lid into sections, allowing for it to be read similar to cartoon panels. On each end of the lid, an image known as the “Siege of the Castle of Love” is depicted. Knights armed with a variety of weapons—bows and arrows, and a trebuchet—attempt to gain access to a castle inhabited solely by women. The women respond playfully, fending off the knights’ advances, but with flowers as ammunition!
Although art historians are unsure of the origin of this image, it is also found within illuminated manuscripts (such as the Luttrell Psalter), suggesting that it was a well-known theme during the later Middle Ages. The lid’s two center panels continue the theme of combat, depicting two knights jousting, observed by a balcony full of maidens. Both scenes focus on male combat and female acquiescence and observation, suggesting that the scenes were intended to serve as an allegory of romantic courtship.
Two lovers and a unicorn
Moving from the lid to the left-end panel, the theme of romantic courtship is continued, although here it is juxtaposed with an image of Christian significance. On the left side of the panel, forbidden lovers Tristan and Isolde (from the legends of King Arthur) meet for a secret rendezvous. They are foiled, however, by Tristan’s uncle, King Mark, who spies on them from between the branches of the tree. Luckily, Tristan and Isolde see King Mark’s reflection in a pool of water, and so pretend to be “just friends.”
To the right of this scene of unrequited love, a more violent episode occurs. A maiden holds a chaplet in her right hand. With her left hand, she cradles the head of a unicorn. Unfortunately for the unicorn, a hunter has snuck up behind him, and has pierced him through with a spear. It may seem strange to us, as contemporary viewers, that for a medieval viewer, this violent image of the capture of a mythical creature was symbolic of love. However, such was the case. Indeed, the unicorn as a symbol of love appears in a variety of other medieval artistic contexts, such as the late fifteenth-century unicorn tapestry, now at the Met Cloisters, in which the unicorn is similarly depicted as captive, and serves as a visual metaphor of marriage and fertility.
In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was viewed as a semi-mythical and incredibly shy creature. It was said that the only way to catch a unicorn was to bait it with a virgin girl, symbolic of the dangers of feminine wiles. The unicorn was simultaneously viewed as a symbol of Christ, who was sometimes referred to as a “spiritual unicorn,” because he allowed himself to be killed on account of his love for humanity. Read as one, the killing of the defenseless unicorn, paired with its Christian interpretation, results in this image’s complex meaning—symbolic of both Christ’s sacrifice as well as the perils of feminine seduction in the pursuit of romantic love.
Taken together, the scenes of Tristan and Isolde’s romantic tryst and the death of the unicorn present to viewers two opposing versions of love. Whereas Tristan and Isolde exemplify romantic, physical, and forbidden love, the unicorn represents a Christian’s pure love for Christ as Savior, a love meant to last beyond the mortal world.
Chivalry in action
Moving to the rear panel of the Walters casket, we come to a further four images from the legends of King Arthur. Like on the casket’s lid, metal fastenings act to divide the rear panel’s imagery into four distinct sections. From left, the first, third, and fourth sections depict the adventures of the gallant Sir Gawain, a true ladies’ man. Neither vicious lion nor hailstorm of swords and arrows will prevent Sir Gawain from rescuing the maidens of the Marvelous Castle, who are depicted in the rightmost section. Meanwhile, in the second from left panel, Sir Lancelot crawls across the infamous Sword Bridge. Like Gawain, he is pelted with weaponry, and the water beneath the bridge churns ominously. Also like Gawain, Lancelot’s chivalrous efforts are for the benefit of a woman—his (forbidden) lover Queen Guinevere, the wife of Lancelot’s friend and lord, King Arthur. These four scenes of knightly daring thus have a more obvious message than the unicorn on the left-end panel. Love, at least in medieval legends, often comes at the price of a grand gesture.
Those three little words—in images
Perhaps for a medieval man or woman, that grand gesture could have been the presentation of this luxury ivory casket to a special someone. The ivory casket would have been an intimate gift— both in terms of its small size, and the close observation required to understand the images. In this way, for their medieval viewers, ivory composite caskets could function as visual surveys of the genre of love, translating into image popular ideas of courtship, chivalry, and romantic and Christian love.
Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2014).