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entry June 2012                    

he Salerno Ivories

The Salerno Ivories are ivory plaques carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments; they are from the Salerno Cathedral, but most of them are now on display in the St. Matthew Diocese Museum in Salerno. Because of its completeness and excellent condition, the collection is considered the finest of its kind in the world.  The series is relatively intact: originally there were 70 engraved plaques, but three have gone missing and are unaccounted for. Of the remaining 67, some are on display elsewhere and don't count as "missing" (even if they are on permanent loan and never coming back!) The rest are in Salerno and may be seen. There are still a number of questions about their precise origin and use, and some of these questions may never be answered; however, enough is known to offer at least a few plausible explanations.

The plaques go back to the 1080s. That was a time in Europe when people who thought about art commonly thought of Byzantium with its strong ties to the classical past. There then occurred a great and marvelous renewal of Italian art, specifically in the case at hand, southern Italian art. This "pre-Renaissance" had much to do with the cultural aspirations of the Abbot Desiderius at the Montecassino Abbey; he served there from 1058-87 (and then went on to become Pope Victor III). We know that Desiderius commissioned the copying of manuscripts, numerous paintings and works by craftsmen and artisans. It is hard to review the details of much of that activity today since most of the portable works of art from Montecassino (such as paintings, wrought metal, manuscripts, and ivory sculptures) have either been destroyed or lost over the many violent centuries that the Abbey has endured.

We also know that: (1) At Montecassino, Desiderius imported ivory carvers from Constantinope to train his monks in that craft; (2) art produced in Montecassino under Desiderius was an amalgam of Byzantine and Carolingian (Italian) styles; (3) there was already a well-established ivory carving workshop in Amalfi, a city/state with excellent relations with the Arab world. Thus, given the strong Arab influence in Amalfi ivory carving, in general, and noting that Byzantine, Italian and Arab influence are all present in the Salerno Ivories, it is plausible to view the ivory plaques as a southern extension of the artistic revival centered on Montecassino. (*1)  The plaques are an important record of the great diversity of stylistic and iconographic sources used by southern Italian artists of the day, and they help us to reconstruct and appreciate a time when Salerno and Amalfi were important cultural centers both as independent duchies and then as part of the vast Norman kingdom in the south.

Having said all that, it is not clear exactly who commissioned the Salerno ivories or why. There are, however, enough specific local references in the scenes to make plausible the idea that the work was, indeed, done by local artisans (probably from Amalfi) exclusively for the Salerno cathedral. The work displays three, and possibly four, different decorative styles —two for the Old Testament (OT) plaques and two (possibly three) for the New Testament (NT). As noted, they are stylistically diverse; they are also reminiscent of, and have been compared to, other similar works, such as a series of plaques in northern Italy, the Grado ivories.(*2) The Salerno Ivories have also been compared to an extant Montecassino ivory panel from that period, now in a Berlin museum.(*3)

The Biblical episodes chosen for the series were probably not intended to be a "Bible for the Poor" as some thought for years. That is, the plaques were most likely not teaching or explanatory tools such as, say, the Exultet Rolls.  Also, they were not meant to be viewed in a museum-like display; they may have been set up at various points on the cathedral grounds (or even fixed in place at various points) and probably served some ornamental or liturgical function. The plaques are likely to have been commissioned by a patron or patrons with a high level of culture and perhaps even from within the church. Evidence for this seems to be the fact that none of the figures, not even the most humble, is ever shown as crude or rough; they are all finely carved with extreme precision.

As noted above, some of the plaques are no longer in Salerno but are on display at various museums in the world: for example, the plaque representing the story of Cain and Abel is in the Louvre in Paris, and the Creation of the Animals was cut in half with Budapest and New York each getting a part! (That's right; someone cut it in half!) To the extent that the series is not complete, it is not clear how various pieces went missing. Some outright theft is possible. The piece in Budapest even has written in Hungarian on the back, "Acquired from an antique dealer in Naples, but originally from Salerno, in 1823." Some of them may have been legitimately sold, but there is no documentation of that.

The figures were carved directly into the ivory plaques; there are still visible traces of rough drafts sketched on the backs. Engraving was done after the ivory had been soaked in a vinegar bath to soften the material and make it more workable. Add to this the Carolingian technique of fusing black glass paste directly onto the ivory to decorate the eyes of the figures. The plaques are relatively uniform in size, each somewhat smaller than a standard sheet of writing paper.

The cycle of plaques starts with scenes of the OT: the Separation of Light and Darkness, the Creation of Angles, the Creation of Adam and Eve, Original Sin, the Flood, then through the episodes of the Tower of Babel and the stories of Abraham and Moses and concluding with the Deliverance of the Tablets of the Law —the Ten Commandments. The New Testament plaques are oriented somewhat differently than those of the Old Testament. The OT plagues generally have two side-by-side scenes to a plaque; the NT plaques are displayed vertically with two scenes to a plaque, one above the other. That may mean that the NT scenes were meant to be displayed differently and perhaps had a different liturgical function. There are also definite visual references to Salerno and even minarets and mosques as well as Christian churches. The first NT plaque must surely have been of the Annunciation, but it has gone missing. The others are present and well preserved: the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt [both shown in the image, above. Photo credit: Wikipedia user Giaros], the Slaughter of the Innocents, then the first appearance of Christ as an adult (His baptism, the Marriage at Cana) etc.etc., then the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, Doubting Thomas, and the Ascension.

The Salerno Ivories have survived almost 1000 years intact in excellent condition; that is a wonder given the violence that has infected the area over the centuries. I have read that the ivories were "in the cathedral until WWII." At that point, I assume they were hidden somewhere for safe-keeping until rapacious Nazi art thieves had left (late 1943). They were always looking for stuff to steal (see Raiders of the Lost Shroud.) In any event, the ivories are safe and you may see them. As I say, a wonder.


*1. Bergman, Robert P. (1974). "A School of Romanesque Ivory Carving in Amalfi" in Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 9, pp. 163-186. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ^up

*2. The Grado ivories are what is left of a similar series of plaques in the Basilica of Sant'Eufemia in Grado in northern Italy. They seem to be the work of Middle-Eastern artisans and were probably commissioned by the Eastern Roman emperor, Heraklons II and given to the diocese of Alexandria in Egypt. From there, they found their way to Grado and remained there intact until the middle of the 1400s. They have been dated to between the 6th and 7th centuries AD. There is an Old Testament section and a section dedicated to Mark the Evangelist. They are typically Byzantine in style, with Arabic influence; they display some Roman temples, but also minarets and mosques. Greek writing shows they were meant to be installed in a Greek Christian context. The stylistic similarities to the later Salerno ivories and some other works indicate that the Grado ivories were the prototype for the others. The collection started to break up in the Renaissance and now most of them are dispersed in various European museums and private collections. ^up

*3. "An Eleventh Century Ivory Plaque from South Italy and the Cassinese Revival" by Herbert L. Kessler in Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 8. Bd., (1966), pp. 67-95 Published by: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The plaque is 27x12 cm. and carved on both sides, with one side depicting the  Crucifixion as a vertical composition placed above a series of angels. ^up

additional bibliography:

Willard, Henry M. (1973) Abbot Desiderius and the ties between Montecassino and Amalfi in the eleventh century. Badia di Montecassino (Montecassino).

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