Length: 21.200 cm
Width: 12.700 cm
Height: 7.300 cm
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Ivory casket with scenes from the Romances
Medieval, about AD
From Paris, France
A numbers of caskets with Romance scenes were made in the workshops of medieval Paris. They either show a continuous narrative taken from one tale, or a composite series of scenes from different sources, like here. Closely comparable examples exist in several different collections, indicating the popularity of such caskets, which were used for jewellery or documents.
The lid of this casket portrays a joust. The joust is flanked by an episode known as the Assault on the Castle of Love, where knights attempt to lay siege to a castle occupied by maidens.
On the front the Greek philosopher Aristotle teaches the young Alexander the Great to beware of women and to concentrate on his studies. However, Aristotle meets Phyllis, the object of Alexander's affections, and falls in love with her himself. She rejects him but asks to ride around the court on his back, like a horse. He complies and Alexander witnesses the humiliation. The other scene on the front is known as the Fountain of Youth. An oriental legend in origin, it tells of bearded ancients who have their youth restored by bathing in the fountain. They are shown, before and after the transformation.
At one end of the casket, two further scenes are portrayed. Tristram and Isolde are spied upon by Isolde's husband, King Mark. Seeing his face reflected in the fountain, they change their conversation and escape detection. This is combined with the story of the unicorn and the maiden. The unicorn was believed to surrender to virgins, allowing hunters to trap them.
The other end of the casket depicts Galahad receiving the key to the castle of the maidens.
On the back, the casket is decorated with tales of Gawain and Lancelot. Gawain fights the lion; Lancelot crosses the sword bridge; Gawain is shown on the magic bed, witnessed by the ladies of the castle of Merveille.
The casket is made from elephant ivory, the silver mounts are modern.
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
D. Hassig, 'Sex in the Bestiaries' in The mark of the beast-1 (New York and London, Routledge, 1999), pp. 72-98
J. Cherry, Mythical beasts-3 (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
P. Barnet (ed.), Images in ivory: precious obje (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997)