This post is by Elinor Langtry, a University of Sydney museum studies intern.
Pyx Box with scenes from the life of Achilles used to contain incense, bread for the Eucharist, or holy relics, 200 to 400 AD.
Before you go rushing off to find a dictionary, I beat you to it: Fictile means ‘capable of being moulded’ or ‘of or pertaining to a potter’. So, fictile ivories are plaster of Paris casts of objects carved from ivory. The Powerhouse Museum has a collection of almost 800 of them, from late antique boxes, diptychs, writing tablets and plaques, to medieval caskets, chess pieces, mirror cases and book covers. Many are intricately carved and filled with scenes of biblical history, saints lives, popular romance stories or classical legends, like this pyx box above.
I’m an intern at the museum and I’ve been working on updating the object catalogues for these ivory casts which have been in the museum for nearly 120 years. Many casts are poorly described but luckily my supervisor, Geoff Barker, found copies of an obscure 1876 book titled, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum’ (now the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). It was written by J. O. Westwood who, along with Mr. Nesbit, travelled around Europe in the 1850s searching through church treasuries and museums, for ivory carvings they could cast in plaster. According to Westwood they did this to to create an accessible collection for students and scholars to study. Later many of these casts were acquired by the South Kensington Museum, for whom Westwood published his descriptions. In the 1880s a set was also aquired by the Powerhouse Museum.
The South Kensington catalogue, as well as providing a huge amount of detail about the casts and their content, also solved the mystery of what the strange numbers in the old museum stock book entries were referring to – they were the numbers in this Catalogue.
Once this was solved we were able to search and cut-and-paste from a digital copy of the book, as well as cross reference the index from a hardcopy in the museum’s library. Having two copies meant that I could check the index and the pages of descriptions at the same time to find entries that (it turns out) had two numbers in the catalogue.
There are 860 descriptions in the catalogue and almost all the ‘s’s are printed as ƒ and after a few weeks of reading all those ‘ƒ’s you start reading ‘f’s and double ‘l’s as ‘s’s. It got to the point where one day, while reading the description for the pyx box below that included the phrase ‘four large figures (one a centaur) killing several prisoners’ I read ‘killing’ as ‘kissing’, which confused me no end for a while until I figured they were in fact ‘l’s – proof positive for the efficacy of rote learning.
Pyx box, AD 200-300 depicting four large figures (one a centaur) killing several prisoners.
On the topic of kissing, some of my favourites are the fourteenth century French caskets carved with scenes from of courtly love. Some have scenes from late medieval romances, while others have couples who, to borrow another Westwood description, ‘are engaged in amatory dalliance’, as in this next casket.
Lid of a casket, France AD 1300-1400, with four compartments, each with ‘a pair of lovers engaged in fond dalliance.’
I think my absolute favourite, however, is the casket below, which has scenes from courtly romance stories and adventures, such as Tristan and Isolde and Arthurian stories , as well as references to ‘knightliness’ and knightly endeavour in the service of love, and the popular allegorical scenes of the siege of the castle of love, which involves knights attacking the castle of ladies with roses and (the best bit of all) a trebuchet with baskets of roses… what’s that saying, make love not war?… In depictions of the castle of love, the ladies always end up surrendering, and who can blame them, because let’s face it… who doesn’t love knights in shining armour.
Lid of a caskete, France AD 1300 – 1400, with four panles, the two end panels depicting the Siege of the Castle of Love, and the two central panels depicting a joust.
Cast of a Memento Mori head, 1500 – 1800
But finally I’d like to quote another Arthurian tale and present … something completely different.
The South Kensington casts are only one of a number of European art reproductions in the collection and while we were looking through the storage shelves we came across this cast (pictured above).
From the front this appears to be a normal head, though, as we can see, the back is half normal head and half skull. These artistic representations of mortality are referred to as memento mori and referenced a fascination with death from the Renaissance right through to the Victorian period. After looking at so many ivories with medieval religious iconography I was struck by the way this one revealed such a different understanding of death and the afterlife.
Images are from the Powerhouse Museum collection.