Lot 6
  • 6

Anglo-Saxon, late 10th/early 11th Century

70,000 - 100,000 GBP
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  • a walrus ivory relief of the Crucifixion
the crucifix flanked by the Virgin and St John with crown carrying angels above, within octalobate frame


Belgian Private collection. 


J.Beckwith, Ivory Carvings, p121(no 18), London 1978 illustrated pl.38
B. C. Raw, Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography and the art of the Monastic Revival, Cambridge, 1990, pp.111-112,119, 128 illustrated plate IIIa


As is visible in the catalogue photograph, the relief is in three pieces with the small section above Christ's head, which is visible as of a different colour, composed of later infill and which is loose. The relief is pierced at the top and the left side and the top of the back has had a pin head inserted which keeps it in the frame. Further photographs of the back are available upon request .
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

English ivories of similar antiquity are exceedingly rare, and moreover, the present ivory is the last one recorded in private ownership. Setting aside a small number of eighth-century examples and sundry items such as gaming-pieces or spoons, Beckwith lists only twenty-nine significant and substantial Anglo-Saxon ivories from the tenth to the mid-eleventh century (pre-1066) (Ivory Carvings in Early Medieval England, 1972, nos. 14-42; the present ivory is no.17). Only one other has come to light since his publication, and was sold in these rooms 11 December 1980, lot 29. It is now British Museum MLA.1980,12-1,1, and in the last century almost all such ivories in private hands have passed into institutional ownership: the British Museum also acquired the ivory originally from the Stanislas Baron collection in 1974 (MLA.1974,10-2,1), and the ivory which was once the property of F. W. H. Roberts was sold in our rooms 17 May 1963, lot 10, to J. Hunt of Dublin, and is now in the holdings of the Hunt Museum in Limerick (their BM005). The present ivory is the single recorded exception to this rule, and has been on the Continent since before export restrictions came into place, perhaps even since the late eleventh century (see below).

Recent studies of crucifixion iconography within Anglo-Saxon art have shown that this ivory is part of a close-knit group of panels of much the same size and date, which are all pierced and appear to have been used as the central bosses of elaborate bookcovers, or perhaps on portable altars. Iconographically, the scene draws on late-tenth-century innovations in English representations of the Crucifixion, and features of the present ivory find numerous parallels within late Anglo-Saxon ivories and manuscript art. The figure of Christ himself (standing upright and erect on the cross with his eyes open) stands between the Germanic 'living' Christ, and, with the slight inclination of his head to the left, the more mature representations of him as a dead and slumped figure. In Anglo-Saxon art this finds exact parallels in a number of other ivory panels (Beckwith, nos.33, 35, 36-8) and a number of manuscript drawings (see Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS. 421, p.1, as an example). The heavy and rigid style of the drapery of his loincloth is the only deviation from the more vigorous and ruffled drapery (clearly related to the 'Winchester style') found on Mary's, Joseph's and the angels' clothing, but even here there is a close parallel: in the Crucifixion miniature in the Arundel Psalter: London, Brit. Lib., Arundel MS.60, fol.12v. The presence of Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea, and the positions of their hands, connects this piece to an ivory panel in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Beckwith no.38) and the crucifixion drawings in the Sherborne Pontifical (Paris, BnF, lat.943, fol.4v) and the Winchcombe Psalter (Cambridge, University Library, Ff.1.23, fol.88r). The angels descending from the upper corners find numerous parallels in late Anglo-Saxon art, and more specifically, as they carry crowns, to an ivory panel in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Beckwith no.33). Even the octolabic shape of the ivory mirrors that of an ivory panel in Copenhagen, Nationalmuseet (Beckwith no.17a). For fuller consideration of the parallels see B. Raw, Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion Iconography, 1990, ch.5 & 6. However, the present ivory panel stands above all others from its group in the skill of its artist, the quality of its workmanship, and fortunately its level of preservation. It has survived with far less wear to its features than almost all other related panels, and apart from that owned by the Hunt Museum, it is the only one of these in which the face of Christ survives with any distinct features.

As the present ivory is most probably from a bookcover, it is of interest that it emerged in Liège, most probably in the nineteenth century. A small cluster of Anglo-Saxon artefacts dating to c.1000 survive in the area of Liège and Cologne, and at least one of these, a large walrus-ivory bishop's crosier, made in Winchester c.1000-20 and subsequently in the holdings of the parish church of Deutz (opposite Liège; item now in Cologne Cathedral Treasury: Beckwith no.30), has been tentatively connected with the gifts which the Vita Heriberti records that Cnut gave to the shrine of St. Heribert in Deutz c.1027 (M. Hare, "Cnut and Lotharingia: Two Notes", Anglo-Saxon England 29, 2000, pp.276-8). In fact, it is also possible that these artefacts stem from gifts made by Anglo-Saxon aristocrats during the years of Edward the Confessor's reign, when close relations existed between the Anglo-Saxon world and Lotharingia. Moreover, it may be possible to identify the manuscript which the present ivory once formed the covering of within this cluster of artefacts. Of the fifty de-luxe Anglo-Saxon manuscripts which are known to have had a continental provenance, some thirty manuscripts, demonstrably come from northern France (most probably as a result of spoils of the Norman Conquest), and only three from Germany (see the appendix to D. N. Dumville, "Anglo-Saxon Books: Treasure in Norman Hands?", Anglo-Norman Studies 16, pp.98-9). These three include manuscripts now in Hannover and Munich which are probably too late to be attached to the present ivory, and more importantly a splendid illuminated Gospel-book dated c.1000 which has additions indicating that c.1075 it was among the possessions of the church of St. Severinus in Cologne. During the medieval period it was used as an oath-book for the officials of that church, and remained there until 1802, when as a result of the secularisation it passed into the ownership of the duke of Arenberg, honorary vices comes Praefectus urbis Coloniensis. It would appear to have come into his possession without its original binding, or with that binding in a damaged form, and he promptly had it bound in one of his own red-velvet bindings decorated with enamels and gems. In 1954 it was purchased by the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; their manuscript M.869. The date of this manuscript agrees closely with the date of the present ivory, and the subject and splendour of the ivory is entirely appropriate for a de-luxe Gospel-book. Moreover, the two appear iconographically related, and in general composition and the position of Mary Magdalene's hands the present ivory agrees more closely with the crucifixion miniature on fol.9v of the Gospel-book than with any other extant Anglo-Saxon Crucifixion drawing (see Raw, pl.ii and iiia where they appear on facing pages). If they were once parts of a single codex, then the ivory having been broken at some point in history may have been kept with the manuscript, and released on to the market after the volume was seized, or alternatively the damage to the ivory may have occurred as it was prized from the binding by the Napoleonic officers.