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Art History

Casket with Scenes from Romances

Image from:

Jennifer Jenks
Art History 1107

The Castle of Love and Knights Jousting: Lid of a Jewelry Casket.

In 14th century France imagine an artisan carving an ivory paneled jewelry casket depicting scenes of chivalry and courtly love. During this period French ivory and bone carvings were one of the greatest ways to help the spread the phenomenon of Gothic art. Gothic Art broke away from the classical style art and architecture. This was the time when gallant knights waged crusades against the Muslims, when intellectual and religious life shifted from monasteries to cities, and independent secular nations took shape across Europe, with France as a leader (Kleiner, et. ala.).
In France luxury art was becoming trendy. Gothic artisans began to produce secular, not specifically or overtly religious, objects. The themes carvers would depict on these luxurious objects came from stories of courtly love and life, motivated by the romantic literature of the day. One of the most famous stories is of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur of Camelot. The concept of Romantic love arose in southern France in the early 12th century. Marriages of these times where based on a business contract, not based on love. Courtly love was based on romantic love; passion and devotion of a lover and loved one. This ideal shaped the social structure of Europe’s courts and modern idea of love.
From this movement of courtly love, The Castle of Love and Knights Jousting, a jewelry casket was produced. This casket was probably made in a Paris workshop around 1330-1350 (Cateforis, et. ala.). Historians know the period it was produced in because the themes are from dated stories and the use of ivory. Ivory was often used for secular objects during the Gothic period. Ivories offered a glance of the riches that enhanced the world outside the walls of the church (Snyder). Historians can assume this jewelry casket came from Paris because of several well-documented objects in a similar style made from ivory and bone in France during this time. These documented ivories found a wide market in France, by being bought and made for aristocratic folk. These caskets or lidded boxes are used for storing various objects (Casket). This particular jewelry casket probably was used for storing the jewels of a fair maiden, probably given to her by her gallant knight or for a noble lady to remember her youth.
The Castle of Love and Knights Jousting is also known as, Casket with Scenes from Romances, and Attack on the Castle of Love. This secular object is in the collection of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. It has carved ivory plaques clamped to the sides of the lid with iron mounts. Its dimension is 4 5/16 by 9 15/16 by 6 ¼ inches (Casket with Scenes from Romances). The casket is decorated with low reliefs. The people shown on the jewelry casket are depicted short and squat; depth of field is shallow, things are going on in the background as well in the foreground. There is no color present, the shadows gives the ivory “color” definition, and value. It appears to be heavy, and sturdy, given the use of ivory and iron mounts.
The theme of the lid is related to the Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris, written around 1225-1235, then completed by Jean de Meung between 1275 and 1280 (Kleiner, et. ala.). Romance of the Rose, is the most popular French poem of the later Middle Ages. Romance of the Rose personifies the experiences of courtly love, and the pursuit of an ideal lady by an ideal knight, set in an enclosed garden and castle, which lets Guillaume to dwell on the beauty of nature. The lid consists of a panorama with 4 panels and with 3 scenes being shown. The left panel on the lid comes from a section in Lorris’s poem about a charming dream allegory of the wooing of a maiden, symbolized by a rose bud within the bounds of a garden of the castle of love. The sculptor carved the siege of the castle of love. In the foreground knights attempt to capture the castle by shooting and catapulting roses over the wall to the fair maidens. One has propped a ladder up against the wall and begins to climb it towards the maidens who are perched on top of the castle. Aiding the fair maidens from the rose shooting knights is Love, in the form of a winged boy, shooting “cupids arrows” at the attackers.
The two middle panels shows two knights jousting in a tournament in the foreground. Jousting is to fight as a knight on horseback with lance ( long spears) to unhorse the opponent. Jousting was a favorite past time for aristocrats, and helped knights prepare for war. Accompanying the jousting knights are fair maidens of the court who watch from a balcony and cheer the knights on. The scene shows action, the knights are just about to hit each other with their lances, the horses are in a galloping motion and the knights are bent forward preparing for each other’s impact with the lances. One can perceive the noise, with trumpets blaring, the horses galloping, and the cheers of the maidens. A youth in the crowd holds a hunting falcon, which is another pastime of the era. Also, the iron mounted handle is placed and centered on the center panels.
The action from the tournament concludes on the right panel with a triumphant knight receiving his prize, a bouquet of roses, from a maiden on horseback. The knight and his ladylove meet in front of the castle with people of the high court looking on from the balcony.
The scenes on the front as well as the sides serve as footnotes, with reference to a variety of secular allegories that illustrate virtues, vices, and the power of women in courtly romance (Snyder). The front panel, which has been missing since the 1800’s, was found in 1988. One of the two scenes on the left shows Aristotle teaching Alexander the great. The second scene on the left depicts the humorous story (popularized by Henri d’Andel) of the aged Aristotle captivated by the young princess Campase, whom he carried on all fours horseback. This story illustrates the lustful desires men have when confronted by such beauty. The right hand scenes depict the love tragedy of Pryamus and Thisbe.
The left end side of the casket is an episode from the legend of Tristan and Iseut with the duped husband, King Mark. Tristan and Iseut spy upon King Mark and a hunter killing a unicorn trapped by a virgin. This scene is a juxtaposition of this allegory of moral purity, with female virtue. A virgin could only attract the legend of the unicorn, a white horse with a single ivory horn, by her moral purity (Casket with Scenes from Romances).
The right end side has scenes from the life of Sir Galahad. A knight rescues a lady from the Wildman, and Galahad receives the key to the castle of maidens (Casket with Scenes from Romances). The back panel illustrates stories from Chretien de Troye’s Perceval, Sir Gawain battling the lion and Sir Lancelot crossing the sword bridge on his way to rescue Guinevere (Snyder). Religious themes may have dominated the churches, but in the Gothic age secular themes were ever present in the private realm of Gothic France.
This particular object interested me because of the theme. I have always been a fan of medieval/gothic movies. I love the movies, Princess Bride and A Knights Tale. I feel like I am connected with the time. Maybe in a past life I was a fair maiden of the courts. The time seems so modest and romantic, so when I found this piece of art in the book I was drawn to it. I first noticed the jousting tournament on the lid, and it was ivory. It was a different piece of ivory work from what I had been used to seeing from earlier in the art history book. In all the books I could find, which were not a lot, the lid of the jewelry casket was just shown. I figured the rest of the casket must be out there, so the hunt began. I found it difficult to find articles on this piece because each book I had found listed different names to the same pieces of work. So many search engines pulled up different sites, some nice and some naughty. I finally found the rest of the jewelry casket on the Metropolitan Museums web site; I was thrilled. It is really a beautiful piece; I would like to know who the sculptor was. I think the pair of colored illustrations attached are of the same casket, I think one is of the back and one is of the front. It is hard to tell because of the resolution.
Another aspect I love about this piece is it contains scene from stories of the time about King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. It is neat because the sculptor had to interpret what the different stories were saying. I can imagine the maiden receiving this jewelry casket and looking at the different panels and knowing what story the scene came from. In a way this piece is like the comic and picture books of today. If I was allowed more time I would like to research more in depth about the stories and legend on the casket, especially the Romance of the Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris. I looked up the Romance of the Rose, the Middle English version, which the first 1705 lines are translated by Geoffry Chaucer. This poem has over 4000 lines, so from what I read the poem is about love, how wonderful. I would also like to know the whole story of King Arthur and Lancelot. I have always heard about it, but never really gotten motivated to read/know about it. I think I will go and rent a movie about Lancelot and King Arthur. This paper has gotten me more interested this period, and the quest of chivalry and courtly love. While researching I also found a mirror with the same scene of the siege of the Castle of Love depicted on it. It too is made from ivory and is carved in the same way with low reliefs. It would be interesting to know if the same person who carved this jewelry box, also carved the mirror. I would also like to find a clear picture of the right, left and back panels; to see what the carving really look like. I had to envision what they would look like from the descriptions I read in the books, kind of like the way the sculptor had to come up with the scenes on the casket.
Casket. Art Net. 2 Nov. 2002.
Casket with Scenes from Romances. Metropolitan Museum. 2 Nov. 2002
Castelnuovo, Enrico. “Gothic Art: Ivory and bone carving in France” Encyclopedia of World Art. Vol. VII: Games and Toys-Greece. New York: McGraw-Hall Book Company Inc., 1962.
Cateforis, David, Stephen Addiss, Chu-Tsing Li, Marylin M. Rhis, and Christopher D. Roy. Art History. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002. Chap.16: 580.
Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya, Richard G. Tansey. Gardner’s Art through the Ages. 11th ed. Vol. 1. Wadsworth, 2001. Chap.18: 518.
Snyder, James. Medieval Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th-14th Century. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989. Chap. XXIV: 443-444.