Two young lovers, elegantly dressed and carved delicately in ivory, share a tender embrace, a singular but perhaps final moment of romantic ecstasy. For behind this couple lurks Death, waiting patiently for these two who remain bound by their earthly appetites, naively ignorant of Death’s presence.
This scene exemplifies many of the ideas that are explored in The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe. Its theme of people who are so absorbed in their worldly pleasures that they literally turn their backs to death recurs throughout the exhibition in various forms: the rich man obsessed with his money, or the nun engaged in lascivious behavior with a young musician, for instance. These stories were captivating not only for their moralizing messages—entreaties to focus on one’s spiritual well being instead of one’s material wealth—but also for the opportunity they presented to artists to show off their artistic dexterity. In the case of this particular ivory bead, the artist, Chicart Bailly—the attribution to whom is another exciting facet of this exhibition—has masterfully imbued these two lovers with a grace and serenity that makes their passionate affair lifelike and all the more relatable. On the other side of the bead, a lizard slides up Death’s jaw and crawls out its open mouth. Again, this vision of Death would have certainly inspired fear and pious contemplation in the eyes of the beholder.
Many of the objects in The Ivory Mirror inspire a similar reaction. What they represented was meant to be frightening, but was also designed to stimulate spiritual action within their beholder. Meanwhile, the artists responsible for these works created them with a deft hand and a meticulous eye for detail. So if you find yourself at the Museum and are confronted with one of these works, I hope that you will see what I mean.
Daniel Rechtschaffen, class of 2018