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Mirror case - an Assembly of Lovers

an Assembly of Lovers

  • Object:

    Mirror case

  • Place of origin:

    Paris (or possibly Lower Rhenish (Cologne), made)
    Cologne (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    early 14th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved elephant ivory

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case DR8

This is an ivory mirror back, depicting an assembly of lovers, made in Paris or possibly Cologne, at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

During the 14th century specialist ivory craftsmen carved both secular and religious objects in great numbers. Although Paris was the main centre of production, other workshops emerged in Italy and Germany. Some of the craftsmen may have been trained in Paris as their work often combines French and local styles.

Ivory combs, together with mirror cases and gravoirs for parting the hair, formed an essential part of the trousse de toilette or étui (dressing case) of the typical wealthy lady or gentleman in the Gothic period.

Gothic ivory mirror backs survive in considerable numbers. The ivory cases themselves, usually between 8 and 14 cm in diameter, consisted of two paired ivory discs (described here as ‘mirror backs’), often with four crawling monsters or lions (or leaves) carved around the outer edge. These ornamental features would transform the circle into a square and make the opening of the case easier, although their vulnerability to breakage is now all too evident.
The majority of the ivory mirror cases and their leather boxes must have been purchased as expensive gifts, to be presented by the wealthy élite to their friends, family and lovers, and often as wedding presents. The subject matter of the mirror backs was almost exclusively secular.

Physical description

Carved ivory mirror case, depicting courting scenes. It is effectively divided into two.
In the upper part are three couples looking over a balcony surmounted by three trefoil arches; the central couple occupy the position of honour, with a cloth draped over the balcony, the lady holding a flowered crown and the gentleman offering a rose to be added to it.
Two seated dogs occupy the triangular spaces at the corners.
Below, in a garden, are three more couples: on the left the young man places his left arm around the lady's shoulders and points with his right hand, while she holds a small dog in her left arm; in the centre, a gentleman approaches a lady wearing a belted gown and tight bonnet, caressing her chin with his left hand and patting her groin with his right. And on the right the man kneels before the woman, presenting his heart to her between his hands and being crowned. Two long-tailed monsters (there were originally four) crawl along the rim.

Place of Origin

Paris (or possibly Lower Rhenish (Cologne), made)
Cologne (possibly, made)


early 14th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved elephant ivory


Diameter: 11.5 cm

Object history note

Formerly in the collection of Louis Fould, Paris; Fould sale, Paris, 4 June 1860, lot 1697. In the possession of John Webb, London, by 1862 (London 1862, cat. no. 133); purchased from Webb in 1867, for £40.

Descriptive line

Mirror Case, carved ivory, an Assembly of Lovers, France (Paris) or possibly Lower Rhenish (Cologne), beginning of the 14th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1867. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 8
Longhurst, Margaret H. Catalogue of Carvings in Ivory. London: Published under the Authority of the Board of Education, 1927-1929, Part II, p. 45
Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. [Catalogue entry] Avori Medievali. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence: S.P.E.S, 1988, cat. no. 17
p. 84
Maskell, W., A Description of the Ivories Ancient and Medieval in the South Kensington Museum, London, 1872
pp. 311-12
Westwood, J O. A descriptive catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum. With an Account of the Continental Collections of Classical and Mediaeval Ivories. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1876
I, pp. 376, 381, 384, 401, 435, 481, II, cat. no. 1018, III, pl. CLXXVIII
Koechlin, R., Les Ivoires gothiques français, 3 vols, Paris, 1924 (reprinted Paris 1968)
part II, pp. 584-585
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014
p. 209
Gaborit-Chopin, Danielle. Ivoires du Moyen Age. Fribourg, 1978
p. 494
Koechlin, R., 'Les Ivoires Gothiques', In: Michel, A., ed. Histoire de l'Art depuis les premiers temps chrétiens jusqu'à nos jours, II/1, Paris, 1906
Williamson, Paul and Davies, Glyn, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 1200-1550, (in 2 parts), V&A Publishing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014, part II, pp. 584-585, cat. no. 201





Subjects depicted

Romantic love; Balconies; Men; Arches; Women




Sculpture Collection

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