Ivory carving

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Detail of a sword scabbard, Japanese

Ivory carving is the art of using carving and other techniques such as scraping, drilling, scoring (engraving) to produce sculptures, reliefs, ornaments and handicrafts from ivory .


Due to the durability of the material, carvings made of ivory from the woolly mammoth belong to the oldest evidence of Upper Palaeolithic small art , while objects made from other, also easy to work, but perishable raw materials, such as wood, have mostly not survived. The manufacture of sculptures and jewelry began in the paleolithic culture of the Aurignacien , parallel to the manufacture of spearheads , and since Gravettien also needles and arrowheads . The associated carving tools were blades , drills and burins made of flint , which is evidenced by traces of work on the objects. Later generations used metal tools. Apart from the improved blade material, the technique of ivory carving has changed little over the millennia. The craftsmanship of the carver and his artistic understanding were formative at all stages of human culture. The advent of machines did not change anything. They expanded the possibilities up to turning work and playing the so-called miracle balls , which could not be made without a lathe . In addition to the traditional tools used in ivory processing, there were high-speed precision tools (drilling tubes, milling cutters), such as those used by dentists .

Stone age

The 6 cm tall Venus vom Hohlefels made of mammoth ivory is considered to be the earliest figurative depiction of a person in the world and is assumed to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. It was discovered in 2008 in a cave in the Swabian Alb .

The lion man is also made of mammoth ivory , the individual parts of which were found from 1939 in the Hohlenstein-Stadel , a cave in the Lone Valley . The 31 cm tall figure is the first three-dimensional representation of a hybrid creature with animal and human features.

Another well-known ivory cabaret of the Swabian Alb is the 11 animal sculptures from the Vogelherd caves that were excavated a few years before the lion man , which at 32,000 years is just as old as the lion man. In 1988, in the Geißenklösterle cave, only a few kilometers away, a mammoth ivory flute was found, which is considered to be the oldest musical instrument in the world. Among the animal representations are a wild horse and a mammoth.

During excavations in the La Madeleine settlement area in France, a 10 cm tall and around 15,000 year old ivory steppe wisent was discovered in addition to jewelry and other small works of art . Ivory carvings were also unearthed during the archaeological securing of the pile dwellings on the banks of the lakes near the Alps.


Ivory statuette, approx. 1300 BC Chr.

The two centers of early advanced civilizations are Egypt and Sumer in Mesopotamia . Due to the distinctive burial culture of the Egyptians, expressive ivory works are known that have survived as grave goods. We have known reliably datable pieces since around 4000 BC ( Badari culture ). Among the accessories are combs, bracelets and pearls as well as statuettes of great beauty. A ceremonial knife with a handle made of hippopotamus ivory has come down to us from the Naqada culture . One of the first kings, the victorious Pharaoh Den , is immortalized on an ivory plaque found in his tomb. The only known representation of Pharaoh Cheops in ivory is shown in the photo below.

Mesopotamia - Middle East

Mesopotamia belongs to the area of ​​the Fertile Crescent , a region that - favored by the great river system of the Euphrates and Tigris - became the cradle of the first advanced civilization in human history ( Sumer ). Unique ivory work has been excavated from the ruins of the cities of that time and the ruins of the subsequent empires of the Akkadians , Babylonians and Assyrians . Many of them must have got here on the trade route, because ivory was not one of the preferred materials of the local craftsmen, who mostly used clay for small art and shell tiles for inlay work . The innumerable ivory tablets from the palace of Nimrud , which served as cladding for the walls and furniture, are mainly of Phoenician origin. It was the Phoenicians, as the leading sea trading power, who spread Phoenician ivory work not only in the Orient, but also in Europe.

Greek world

Colossal statue (gold / ivory) of Athena by Phidias , around 450 BC BC, original destroyed. Replica of Alan LeQuire, 1990, in the true-to-scale reconstructed Parthenon

In addition to the alphabet, the Greeks took over other cultural elements from the Phoenicians , such as formal language and pictorial motifs, which can also be seen in the ivory carving. The first ivory items that came to Greece came from the Phoenicians, who dominated maritime trade in the Mediterranean. This oriental influence contributed significantly to the development of early Greek art. The 24 cm tall ivory statuette that was found as a grave object in Kerameikos is considered a masterpiece of this era (photo). Ivory appliqués adorned musical instruments, loungers (Klinen) and other pieces of furniture. In addition, equipment, containers (pyxides) and small art were made from ivory.

The most spectacular use of ivory was found in the cladding of the colossal statues of gods, the uncovered areas of the skin being made of ivory and the drapery of sheet gold. The statue of Zeus in Olympia , one of the Seven Wonders of the World , which the Greek sculptor Phidias created around 430 BC. Was 12 meters high. It is no longer preserved. The statue of Athena for the Parthenon in Athens, executed in the same chryselephantine technique, also came from Phidias (photo on the right). Gold and ivory sculptures have also come down to us from archaic Greece .

Roman world

Part of an ivory frieze, Trajan's  campaign against the Parthians 114–117 BC Chr.

With the adoption of Etruscan and Greek cultural elements, ivory products came to the Romans , with the Phoenicians also assuming the role of mediator. Ivory was used extensively for jewelry, small art and household items. According to the Greek models, it served as a noble veneer material to upgrade furniture. Loungers ( Klinen ) and the splendid official chairs of the magistrates were often clad with ivory . Musical instruments were given ivory jewelry and inlays. Flutes were made entirely from ivory. In addition to figures of gods, reliefs with depictions of generals or emperors were carved in ivory (photo on the right).

From the imperial era onwards , ivory carvings were used to decorate the diptychs , which the consuls used to give away as a special honor when they took office. These writing boards, which consist of two panels and which can be opened by a hinge, usually have the portrait of the consul concerned on the outside.

Christian world - general

Ivory experienced an unprecedented appreciation through Christianity. The starting point is the Song of Solomon (7.5 EU ), in which the beauty of the beloved is praised: Your neck is a tower of ivory . As a symbol of purity, the ivory tower became an honorary designation for the Mother of God as early as the times of the Church Fathers (see also article Lauretanian litany ). Thus ivory gained a meaning in Christianity like in no other religion.

Many sacred objects were made of ivory and richly decorated: holy water buckets ( situles ), host boxes ( pyxids ), reliquaries , liturgical combs , crucifixes , bishop's staffs and book covers for the holy scriptures .

Examples of precious ivory work from the first centuries are the bishop's seat of Maximianus and the book cover with which the later Echmiadzin Gospel was furnished. Byzantine workshops, from which the box with scenes from the Joseph story comes from, played a major role in the work of that time .

Europe - Middle Ages

Book cover of the Lorsch Gospels , Carolingian , approx. 810 AD
Book cover of the Golden Gospel of Echternach , 11th century

In the course of proselytizing the Germanic peoples, ivory carving came across the Alps with Christianity. It was supported by the developing monasticism and the monastery workshops , which provided the churches with sacred objects. Two examples from the Carolingian and Ottonian times are the carvings on the book covers of the famous Gospels of the Lorsch Abbey and the Echternach Abbey (photos left and right). The Reichenau , Reims , and St. Gallen monasteries were also among the leading workshops .

Based on these traditions and encouraged by the growing trade, which brought the previously unknown raw material ivory, ivory carving spread across Central Europe . Since the end of the 13th century, numerous small house and travel altars in the form of diptychs with carved reliefs on the inside have been made in Paris . In addition, there were more and more luxury items and items for everyday use. Ivory was used to embellish jewelry boxes, mirrors and combs. Workshops in Paris, Venice (Embriachi workshop) and Florence were leaders in this genre . The picture motifs came mainly from mythical sources and from the world of minstrels . The carving on an ivory box from France shows the depiction of the legend of the unicorn, popular at the time (photo below).

Unique works made of walrus ivory have come down to us from Northern Europe, which came from the Vikings and which came to various regions of Europe through trade. Viking chess pieces have been found in Norway, Scotland and France.

Europe - modern times

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-François Rosset, France 18th century

After the great upheavals ( invention of printing , fall of the Byzantine Empire , discovery of America ) and driven by the spirit of optimism, the artists of the Renaissance turned away from the Christian-religious ivory. Bronze and precious metals were preferred materials for small art .

The Pax tablets (photo below), which appeared in the Middle Ages for the liturgical greeting of peace and were in use until the 19th century , were also made of ivory . Sacred objects also came from Africa, where ivory carving was carried out on behalf of Portuguese dealers based on pictorial models.

European ivory carving experienced a heyday in the 17th century, with German artists particularly prominent (see section Ivory Art in Germany ). In contrast to the Middle Ages with its bright colors, only the warm tone of the noble material was allowed to work in the Baroque . Main products were sculpted figures and groups of figures, reliefs , ceremonial vessels, hunting pitchers, tankards and centrepieces . Many of these vessels were designed using precious metals.

Turning represented a special form of ivory processing . With the help of a lathe , the contrefait works (photo below), which were very popular at the time, could be produced. Even more complicated to manufacture were the one-piece wonder balls with increasingly smaller inner balls.

The enthusiasm for this and similar gimmicks in the Rococo period led various European princes to bring ivory artists to their courts and to have themselves instructed in the practice of woodturning. At the end of the century, ivory was also used as a painting base for miniatures . The ivory art experienced a final high point in the sculptures of the gold-ivory manner ( Chryselephantin ) in the period of Art Nouveau and Art Deco , where gold was often replaced by gilded or painted bronze.

In the 19th century the artisanal and artistic processing of ivory was increasingly replaced by the industrial mass production of everyday objects of all kinds. This development was favored by the oversupply, which the colonial powers England , the Netherlands and Portugal ensured. The result was an unprecedented decimation of elephants in Asia and Africa.

Ivory art in Germany

The former German Ivory Museum (until 2015)

After the beginnings of ivory carving in the monastery workshops in the Middle Ages, sculptors who worked in stone or wood also turned to the new material. In the 17th and 18th centuries, these artists included Christof Angermair , Georg Petel , Melchior Barthel , Balthasar Permoser and Simon Troger . Specialists who mainly dealt with ivory were Leonhard Kern  (17th century), the brothers Christoph Maucher and Johann Michael Maucher  (17th century), Ignaz Elhafen (17th / 18th century), Lebrecht Wilhelm Schulz  ( 18th / 19th century), Ferdinand Preiss and Jan Holschuh  (20th century). The invention of the ornate contrefait turning is attributed to the Zick family (17th century) from Nuremberg.

A development in ivory processing that began in the 16th century with high mathematical and technical demands is represented by the hinged sundials with compass. The center of production was Nuremberg. Outstanding workshops were Leonhart Miller and the Tucher and Troschel families .

In the 18th century, Hereditary Count Franz I. zu Erbach-Erbach brought the white gold - as ivory is also called - to Erbach in the Odenwald, which attracted a number of ivory artists and thus established the ivory carving tradition there. At that time the material was mainly turned. In 1892 a technical college for ivory carvers was founded in Erbach. Today this profession is trained in the nearby "Vocational School for Wood and Ivory Processing Crafts" in Michelstadt . Since the trade in elephant ivory is strictly regulated according to the Washington Convention on the Protection of Species of 1973, fossil mammoth ivory is mostly processed today, for which there are no restrictions. Horn , antlers and the ivory nut are also used as carving materials .

In 1966 the German Ivory Museum was opened in Erbach . The museum has been located in Erbach Castle since 2016 .

Islamic world

Ivory has no religious meaning in Islam and sacred objects are not required in the practice of religion. Due to the ban on images in Islam, there are far fewer works of art that depict living beings than in other cultures . Avoiding pictorial representations led to a preference for writing ( calligraphy ) and ornament , as the examples show. In addition to the carved boxes and boxes, weapons and splendid saddles were decorated with ivory plates. Many objects with rich ivory carvings came to the Christian West through the Crusaders .

Indian subcontinent

Statuette of the goddess Lakshmi, 1st century AD, found during excavations in Pompeii

In contrast to other cultural areas, human and elephant coexistence has existed in India since prehistoric times - without interruption up to the present day. The first depictions of elephants can be found as rock paintings in the Bhimbetka caves . The lack of ivory objects from millennia is attributed to the climatic conditions by research. Evidence of ivory processing from the time of the high civilization of the Indus is also rare, although the export of ivory is considered certain. Among the thousands of typical Harappa seals that have been recovered so far, only one was made of ivory. In Lothal , some ivory combs, jewelry and, as a single piece, a rod with a length graduation were excavated. Small works of art made of ivory were not found.

Ivory carvings from the following Vedic period are also only sparsely preserved. Outside of India there was a previously unique find that also testifies to the diverse trade relationships. The statuette of the goddess Lakshmi was discovered in the ruins of the city of Pompeii , which was buried in AD 79 (photo right).

The sensual representation is a hallmark of Indian art, with many motifs having a religious reference. After the turn of the century , the number of ivory artifacts increased. From the summer palace of the Kushan the so-called was Begram -Schatz recovered, which many ivories acid (s. Photos).

The objects that were traditionally made from ivory in India included wall and furniture coverings, especially statuettes in the service of various religions.

East asia


Buddha, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

On the East Asian mainland, the processing of ivory is already known from the Neolithic Hemudu culture . Some ivory grave goods have come down to us from the later Shang period . The finds come from the completely preserved grave of the army leader Fu Hao , one of the wives of King Wu Ding . The nearly two thousand objects - mainly made of bronze, clay, and jade - also included five ivory items, including a richly decorated jug (see).

This makes ivory carving one of the oldest handicrafts in China. However, in ancient Chinese and in the following 2000 years of the imperial era, ivory objects never had the prestige value that wealthy Chinese give them in the present (since the end of the 20th century). Ivory carving was far behind painting , calligraphy , bronze art and pottery . In addition, the preferred material for carved small art was not ivory, but jade .

With the advance of Buddhism from northern India via the Silk Road during the Han period , the first figurative Buddha images came to China. However, the main products made of ivory were items of secular use, such as combs, hairpins, jewelry, game pieces and signature stamps . The surface-colored and engraved tabletops, picture panels and containers were artistic works. Since the Han period, narrow ivory tablets have been part of the formal equipment of the officials for about a thousand years. The tablets (called 'hu') were used for short notes and were considered badges of rank, which were held in the hands like scepter during the greeting (see figure below).

The unobtrusive use of ivory came to an end when China rose to become the new economic power. Ivory items have been popular status symbols for China's rising middle class since around the 1990s . In addition to coveted jewelry, ivory came into vogue as a material for everyday objects, which became luxury items, for example artfully clad cars, cell phones, etc. In the past, the raw material could be obtained from the indigenous - now almost exterminated - elephants, today the enormous increase in demand is mainly covered by (mostly illegal) imports from Africa, which endangers the population of African elephants (for the problem see article ivory ).

Korea - Japan

Many cultural elements, such as writing and Buddhism , including ivory carving, made their way to Korea and Japan from China . Both countries have a tradition of ivory processing that goes back only 1,200 years. The first works made of ivory came to Japan together with objects made of other materials around 750 AD in the Shosoin treasury in Nara , the capital of the time. They came from the imperial household of Tenno Shomu . Most of the objects were made in China or by hired Chinese artists in Japan.

For centuries, ivory was a popular material for chopsticks and for belt buckles ( netsuke ). Furthermore, ivory was used in the engraving technique ( Bachiru ), in which the ivory was first colored on the surface and then processed.

The signature stamps (Japanese: Hankos ) were also adopted by the Chinese . The massive use of ivory for these seals from the 1970s onwards made Japan the world's largest ivory importer. Targeted education about the bloody connections of the elephant hunt led to a rethink. It is estimated that the number of seals made from ivory decreased from 2 million in 1980 to 110,000 in 2001. Today the usual material for the mostly machine-made name seals is ivory-colored plastic.


  • Meyers Konversations-Lexikon. 5th edition, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig and Vienna, 1894
  • Exhibition cat. Masterpieces made of ivory from the National Museums in Berlin. Darmstadt, Hess. Landesmuseum 1999/2000, Munich, Bavarian National Museum 2000. Berlin / Braunschweig 1999
  • O. Beigbeder: Ivory. Frankfurt / Main 1965
  • Eva Halat: Modern Scrimshaw. History, instructions, gallery. Verlag Angelika Hörnig, 2003 ISBN 3-9808743-1-1 (Scrimshaw is the scratching of pictures into the surface of ivory and the like, not the scrimshaw carving )
  • Eugen von Philippovich: ivory. 2nd edition, Munich, 1982
  • Ernst Seidl et al. (Ed.): The Mammut vom Vogelherd. Tübingen finds of the oldest preserved works of art. Tübingen: Museum of the University of MUT, 2008
  • Christian Theuerkauff: Ivory Collection Reiner Winkler. Munich, 1984
  • Exhibition cat. 1783–1983 200 years of Erbach ivory and the “Doppelform” competition at the German Ivory Museum in Erbach / Odenwald from October 1 to December 31, 1983
  • Vocational schools of the Odenwaldkreis (ed.): Technical school 1892–1992 100 years of vocational school for the wood and ivory processing craft. Michelstadt, 1992
  • Christian Theuerkauff: The sculptures in ivory from the 16th to 19th centuries. (Vol. 2 of the catalog publication Die Bildwerke der Skulpturengalerie Berlin ), Berlin 1986
  • Nicholas Penny: History of Sculpture - Material, Tools, Technology. Leipzig 1995, ISBN 3-363-00646-2 . (on ivory and horn: pp. 153–163)
  • Ivory, ivory sculpture. In: Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte , Vol. 4, Munich 1957, column 1307–1362. Also digital: ivory, ivory sculpture
  • JH Emminghaus and VH Elbern: Diptych. In: Lexikon des Mittelalters, Volume 3, Munich 1986, Sp. 1101–1103
  • Sibylle Wolf: Jewelery - Ivory processing in the Swabian Aurignacia. Kerns Verlag, Tübingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-935751-21-6

Individual evidence

  1. [1]
  2. http://www.lonetal.net/loewenmensch3.html
  3. ^ Art of the World: Extra-European Cultures, Vol. 11: Mesopotamia and Western Asia by Leonard Wooley, Holle Verlag, Baden-Baden, 1962, p. 76
  4. ^ Art of the World: Extra-European Cultures, Vol. 11: Mesopotamia and Western Asia by Leonard Wooley, Holle Verlag, Baden-Baden, 1962, p. 193
  5. Art of the World: Non-European Cultures: Vol. 23: Orient and Occident by Ekrem Akurgal, Holle Verlag Baden-Baden, 1966, p. 171
  6. Raymond Koechlin : Les Ivoire gothiques français , 3 volumes, Paris 1924
  7. Justus von Schlosser: The workshop of the Embriachi in Venice , in: Yearbook of the art-historical collections of the Most High Imperial House, Vol. 20, Vienna 1899.
  8. Edgar Bierende, Sven Bretfeld, Klaus Oschema: Rites, Gestures, Ceremonies , De Gruyter Berlin, 2008, ISBN 978-3-11-020802-3 , p. 129
  9. Max von Boehn: Miniatures and Silhouettes , F. Bruckmann, Munich, 1917, p. 12
  10. Contemporary projections from 1894 stated that 80,000 animals were killed per year. Source: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon. Volume 5, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig and Vienna 1894, p. 612.
  11. Yashodhar Mathpal: Prehistoric paintings of Bhimbetka , Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1984, ISBN 978-81-7017-193-5 , pp 120
  12. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, FA Brockhaus, Mannheim 1989, Vol. 6, ISBN 3-7653-1106-5 , p. 308
  13. To maintain the substance of ivory, 45 - 55% humidity and temperatures below 25 degrees Celsius are necessary (Canadian Conservation Institute, CCI Notes 6/1, Care of Ivory, Bone, Horn and Antler, Ottawa, CCI, 1983)
  14. ^ Art of the World: Non-European Cultures, Volume 1: India by Hermann Goetz, Holle Verlag Baden-Baden 1962, p. 62
  15. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, FA Brockhaus, Mannheim 1989, Vol. 10, ISBN 3-7653-1100-6 , p. 443
  16. Google result for http://whc.unesco.org/document/115049
  17. Luxury car with ivory motifs debuts in Guangzhou
  18. ^ Esmond Morris, Daniel Stiles: The Ivory Markets of East Asia, Published by Save the Elephants Nairobi / London 2002, ISBN 9966-9683-3-4 , page 13
  19. ^ Esmond Morris, Daniel Stiles: The Ivory Markets of East Asia, Published by Save the Elephants Nairobi / London 2002, ISBN 9966-9683-3-4 , pages 13 and 16
  20. ^ Esmond Morris, Daniel Stiles: The Ivory Markets of East Asia, Published by Save the Elephants Nairobi / London 2002, ISBN 9966-9683-3-4 , page 16

Web links

Commons : Ivory  - Collection of images, videos, and audio files