Lot 2
  • 2

Italian, Sicily, circa 1100

150,000 - 200,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Oliphant
  • ivory
  • Italian, Sicily, circa 1100


Sotheby's, London, 6 October 2010, lot 137

Catalogue Note

The word 'oliphant' is derived from old French meaning 'elephant', which is first documented in the English translation of the Song of Roland in the 12th century.  It described the ivory sounding horn with which the hero Roland summoned aid during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, shortly before his death at the hands of the Arabian enemy in 778. Carved from a whole elephant tusk and originally banded with silver and hung with cord, these horns would have produced a low but loud call. They were prized symbols of wealth and power, passed down through the centuries in Europe's treasure houses.

Few oliphants from the eleventh and twelfth centuries survive. They are a fascinating witness to a unique period of cultural exchange between East and West on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Oliphants were carved from African ivory and were probably prevalent in Fatimid Egypt, although no example has survived.  Until 1071 Sicily was part of the Fatimid empire. However, quarrels between the Muslim caliphates gave the Christian rulers of southern Italy an opportunity to send in Norman mercenaries as a conquering force. Roger I, who became Norman Count of Sicily and the first in the line of Norman rulers of Sicily, led the invasion. The Norman genius was not only in capturing this Islamic stronghold, but in maintaining it successfully, by keeping Muslims and Byzantine Greeks in positions of influence. Using the heterogeneous nature of their society, the Normans in Sicily capitalised on their geographic location as a nexus of culture and trade. In the twelfth century, when the island became a kingdom, it was one of the wealthiest states in Europe, wealthier even than England.

The decoration of oliphants, most often with animals and scrollwork, sits within the tradition of Islamic imagery, without over-reliance on the human form. Oliphants carved by Muslim and Byzantine craftsmen for their new Catholic rulers continued in this style. The present Oliphant is very simply decorated and can be most closely compared to another in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris (inv. no. OA 4069). The foliate designs on the two bands close to where the mouthpiece was originally secured, are carved to the same pattern and the body of the Oliphant is shaped in simple flat planes along its length. The Louvre oliphant is dated to the end of the 11th century. The twisted rope work design along the upper length of the present oliphant can be compared to a similar design on a twelfth century oliphant in the collection of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore (see Randall, op.cit.). A final comparable oliphant exists in the Musée de l'Armée, Paris (see Shalem 2004, op.cit., Plate XIV). In this instance, the foliate bands of the upper section bear some similarity, although the cutting technique of the oliphant at hand seems more angular.

O. von Falke, 'Elfenbeinhörner. I. Ägypten und Italien', Pantheon, 4, 1929, pp. 511-517; O. von Falke, 'Elfenbeinhörner. II. Byzanz', Pantheon, 5, 1930, pp. 39-44; R. Randall, Medieval Ivories in the Walters Art Gallery, cat. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1969, pp. 172-173, nos. 247; E. Kühnel, Die islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen VIII.-XIII. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1971; D. Buckton, Byzantium: Treasures of Byzantine Art and Culture from British Collections, exhib. cat., The British Museum, London, 1994, pp. 146-7, no. 158; A. Shalem, Islam Christianized, Frankfurt am Main, 1996, pp. 99-110; A. Shalem and R. Pinder-Wilson, 'A newly discovered Oliphant in a Private Collection in London', Mitteilungen zur Spätantiken Archäologie und Byzantinischen Kunstgeschichte, 2, 2000, pp.79-92; D. Gaborit-Chopin, Ivoires médiévaux Ve – Xve siècle, cat. Louvre Museum, Paris, 2003, pp. 217-8, no. 64; A. Shalem, The Oliphant. Islamic Objects in Historical Context, Leiden, 2004, Plate XIV

This lot is sold with a Radiocarbon dating certificate from CIRAM (Centre d'Innovation et de Recherche pour l'Analyse et le Marquage) dated January 27th 2009 and stating that 'the raw material from this object would most probably date from the period between the 11th and the middle of the 12th centuries AD' (reference No 1208-OA-299R-2).