Why is an object probably made in medieval Southern Italy in an Islamic art museum? This ivory horn is one of about 80 examples that survive worldwide, known as “oliphants,” deriving from the Old French word for “elephant.” This term was first used in the 12th-century Song of Roland, when Roland, fighting the Arabs in Spain at the battle of Roncevaux in 778 AD, blows his horn with all his might to recall his master Charlemagne. Because of these beginnings, surviving ivory horns are frequently associated with the intersection of Christian and Muslim cultures, especially in the context of the Crusades. Ironically, then, the designs on one group of oliphants are thought to have Islamic origins, and some art historians have suggested they were even made in the Islamic world. Others have pointed to the fact that these designs were widespread in the art of medieval southern Italy, especially in the sculptural elements of churches: portals, tympanums, columns and capitals. Such debates illustrate the fluidity of styles and objects in the medieval Mediterranean.
An oliphant is made from an elephant tusk, undoubtedly from an African elephant at this time and place. It takes advantage of the tusk’s natural morphology, which has a conical-shaped hollow occupying 20–30% of its length. A few centimetres of dentine (ivory) are left around the hollow core, allowing for surface decoration to be carved, while the rest of the tusk can be carved into a range of objects. This technique indicates that the idea to make oliphants occurred in a region where there was intense ivory production and derived from a desire not to waste any of the precious tusk.
The most likely place is Southern Italy (including Sicily). Large numbers of objects datable to the 11th and 12th centuries, whose origins can be traced to this region, have survived. These include more than 300 “Siculo-Arabic” boxes associated with the Norman court at Palermo, and a group of 70 carved plaques associated with a commission for Salerno Cathedral. They have many connections with the oliphants in their style and carving techniques.
There was most probably no single place for the production of oliphants: the craftsmen themselves may have travelled to wherever their skill was required. The raw ivory would have been sourced through trans-Saharan trade and gathered in North African ports—especially in present-day Tunisia, only a few kilometres from Italy. In turn, Italian merchants would have shipped the ivory across the Mediterranean. The raw material demonstrates contact across political and confessional borders, even if the designs do not.
This oliphant’s design is organized in horizontal bands along which processions of animals and birds run after each other, sometimes biting the tail of the creature in front. At the mouth of the oliphant is carved a soldier, wearing what looks like Norman armour, and fighting off lions. Snake-like creatures appear several times on this object. Their bodies curl over themselves into loops, suggesting dragons.
These scenes of combat between animals and humans convey a message of strength and aggression. Such qualities were conferred on the person holding the object. It is fitting, then, that oliphants—and the wider category of medieval horns made from cattle, bison, or aurochs—were widely used by the Norman nobility in hunting. At the end of the hunt, their open ends could be stoppered and used for drinking. Hunting implies ownership of the land, and horns were often used to physically symbolize gifts of land to the church. As such, many oliphants have survived in ecclesiastical treasuries.
This oliphant survived in a noble context. While nothing is known about its history between the 12th to 16th centuries, its silver mounts show it was in England by the early 17th century. They were probably added around 1620, when Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Lord Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seals to King Charles I, married Sir John Hare. The hares running around the silver band at the mouth of the horn probably allude wittily to the name Hare. It has also been suggested that the large silver claw, which acts as a stand for the oliphant, might be a cockerel’s foot, since the Coventry family had the cockerel as their crest.
The oliphant remained in the Hare family until it was bought by the Aga Khan Museum in 2009.
— Mariam Rosser-Owen
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