- Museum number
Walrus ivory, carved in relief with a depiction of the Baptism of Christ. Devotional carving, probably cut down from a plaque mounted on the cover of a holy book, or possibly from a casket. The carving portrays the young Christ being baptised by the bearded figure of Saint John the Baptist. The saint is shown standing in the sacred river Jordan, represented by stylized waves. The Baptist's full-length garment is a complex arrangement of corrugations, swirls and flutters, in contrast to Christ's naked torso. Both figures are haloed. The ivory has been cut at the right side and top from a larger panel. There are three attachment holes, two towards the bottom and another in the centre. The back is undecorated, but has a modern ink inscription. Both surfaces are highly polished.
- Production date
Height: 93 millimetres
Width: 45 millimetres
- Curator's comments
Webster et al 1984
The ivory, which was probably mounted on a casket or book cover, is a translation of the restless dynamics of figure-drawing of the period into another medium. The Baptist is almost the sum of elaborately crimped and frilled garments, and his light, dancing tread confirms the impression of movement conveyed in the fluttering activity of the drapery. The static, well-modelled figure of Christ is in stark contrast to the Baptist, and serves as a reminder that a severer, more controlled style coexists at this period with the delight in restless pattern, expressing an interest in form as well as line (see e.g. a triangular panel held by Winchester City Museums, 817 (cat. 114) and a Nativity panel held by Merseyside County Museums, Liverpool, Mayer Collection M 8060 (cat. 115)).
The style and stance of the Baptist closely resembles the great figure of Christ in the Second Coming in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (British Library, Additional MS 49598, f. gv (cat. 37)). It must also belong to the last quarter of the tenth century.
Provenance: Stanislas Baron Collection, Paris, before 1906; Martin-le-Roy Collection, Paris; Marquet de Vasselot Collection, Paris; purchased by the British Museum in 1974.
Exhibitions: London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1930, ‘Catalogue of an Exhibition of English Medieval Art’, no. 82; London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1974, ‘Ivory Carvings in Early Medieval England 700-1200’, no. 28.
Bibliography: London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1928, ‘Review of Principle Acquisitions’, PL. 5; Beckwith, J. 1972, ‘Ivory Carving in Early Medieval England’, London, no. 14 and refs, PL. 35; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 190, 193, PL. 266; Longhurst, M.H. 1926, 'English Ivories', London, 17, 79-80, 135; Victoria and Albert Museum. 1930, 'Exhibition of Medieval Art' 82, PL. 16; Talbot Rice, D. 1952, 'English Art 871-1100', Oxford, 168, PL. 35
Text from Zarnecki et al, 1984, cat. no. 180, see bibliography
'A large, bearded figure of St John the Baptist baptises the smaller figure of Christ. The agitated, linear style is typical of Anglo-Saxon drawing of the late 10th and 11th centuries, but the weight and the volume of the figures and the directional pull of drapery approaches the monumental style of the 'Harrowing of Hell' from Bristol rather than the delicate but more superficial network of lines of the 'Christ in Majesty' and 'Virgin and Child'.
Beckwith, 1972, no.14
L. Webster, Apocalypse Then: Anglo-Saxon Ivory Carving in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. In: Aedificia Nova: Studies in Honor of Rosemary Cramp (Kalamazoo, MI, 2008), pp. 226-253
Koechlin, R. 1906 'Catalogue raisonné of the collection Martin Le Roy. Fascicule II. Issue II. Ivoires et sculptures'.
Molinier, E. 1896 'Histoire générale des arts appliqués à l'industrie, du Ve à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. I. Les Ivoires'. Paris.
The spiritual charge of this key episode in the life of Christ is vividly signalled in the figure of the Baptist, whose fluttering draperies and urgent motion merge with the restless river waves to deliver an electrifying acknowledgment of Christ as the Messiah. The dramatic and emotive figure style is characteristic of late Saxon ivory carving and manuscript painting. Though it clearly derives from earlier Continental models, it reflects a distinctively Anglo-Saxon sensitivity to decorative texture, and stylization of the human form.
- On display (G41/dc3/sB)
- Exhibition history
1998 9 Feb-3 May, India, Mumbai, Sir Caswasjee Jahangir Hall, The Enduring Image
1997 13 Oct-1998 5 Jan, India, New Delhi, National Museum, The Enduring Image
1992 26 Dec-1993 14 Mar, Denmark, Copenhagen, Nationalmuseet, Vikings and Christians
1992 1 Sep-15 Nov, Germany, Berlin, Altes Museum, Wikinger, Waräger, Normannen. Die Skandinavier und Europa 800-1200
1992 1 Apr-20 Jul, France, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Les Vikings... Les Scandinaves et l’Europe 800-1200
1984 5 Apr-8 Jul, London, Hayward Gallery, English Romanesque Art 1066-1200 cat. no. 180, ill. p. 213.
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number