Height: 14.500 cm
Room 40: Medieval Europe
Ivory figure of St Margaret of Antioch
Medieval, about AD 1325-50
From Paris, France
This ivory figure of St Margaret shows her miraculous deliverance from the belly of the dragon that had swallowed her. The miracle occurs when, in her plight, Margaret prays to the cross. St Margaret was one of the most popular Virgin Saints of the later Middle Ages. Her ordeal became associated with the pain of childbirth, thus she has become the patron saint of women in labour.
The ivory carver has portrayed the action as one continuous moment. Barely has the dragon swallowed Margaret - part of her gown hangs from the open jaws of the beast - than she bursts forth.
Microscopic analysis has revealed the original polychromy beneath two later layers. Also, the hem of the gown was originally decorated with gold crescents. So, how would the ivory have appeared originally? Would it have been a blaze of colour? Recent research has demonstrated that gothic ivories tended to be very restrained in their use of polychrome, which was used only to pick out details. The largest coloured surfaces tended to be the linings of robes. Flesh tones appear not to have been used, but may have been added later. Blue was used to distinguish the eyes and red for the lips. Here the artist has disguised the naturally occurring cracks in the ivory with designs of gold trefoils and plants. The qualities of the ivory itself were generally carefully considered.
J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)
P. Barnet (ed.), Images in ivory: precious obje (Detroit Institute of Arts, 1997)