3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Afro-Portuguese Ivories

Afro-Portuguese Ivories: 15th- 16th cent.

Recently, we explored the history of one of China’s most famous exports, blue-and-white patterned porcelain, and today we’re returning to the theme of culturally complex trade objects that blend the aesthetics of indigenous creator and foreign market to remarkable effect. In 1460, the Portuguese became the first to land on the west coast of Africa and African ivory transformed their commercial networks. African ivory can be worked in astonishing ways because of the crosshatched microstructure of its grain, and gained a reputation as “white gold.” Intricate decorative objects were sought after by the upper echelons of European society: for example, Cosimo I de’Medici of Florence and the German artist Albrecht Dürer owned African ivories, among others.  Keep reading to discover what makes these carved works so captivating.

1. The Portuguese first landed in Sierra Leone and sought out ivories from Sapi artisans, but when the political climate made commerce untenable, they initiated trade with the Benin kingdom. The West Africans both bestowed ivories on the Portuguese as courtly gifts and made them for sale, integrating elements of Portuguese into commissioned works. Afro-Portuguese ivories are unique in that they reflect a part of pre-colonial history that predates the birth of racially charged imagery and power imbalances. The result, which marries both Portuguese and African aesthetics, reflects a negotiation of equal artists and patrons.

2. One of the earliest kinds of carved works that were given to the Portuguese were oliphants, or side-blow horns. These were used for group hunting excursions in Renaissance Europe. The horns had both Portuguese and indigenous influences in their designs. They often were decorated with complex geometric patterns mimicking African textile patterns.  This one, from the British Museum, shows a hunt scene featuring animals found in Europe such as stags and boars as well as in Africa, such as crocodiles and serpents. It also prominently features the coat of arms of the Portuguese royal house on its base.

3. Other elements of African style apparent in the ivory carvings are an attention to linear patterning, a careful articulation of geometrical forms, and figures that appear frontal and static. Check out these two saltcellars, one at the Metropolitan Museum and the other at the British Museum. The one at the Met features four frontal figures donning detailed dress, a local emphasis of the Benin kingdom. But it is also markedly European: their britches, doublets, hats, and crucifix necklaces make the figures’ identity quite clear. The saltcellar in London is even more obvious in its European subject matter: it is topped with small figures of the Madonna and Child and depicts Biblical scenes along with the arms of Portugal along its sides. This is the earliest documented Afro-Portuguese ivory in Europe.











3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Hieronymus Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," c. 1504

Hieronymus Bosch has been called the Surrealist of northern Renaissance art, and his masterpiece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” makes clear why. Densely populated with bizarre and amusing hybrid figures and visions of the grotesque, the triptych seems playful and eccentric at first glance, but it actually reflects Bosch’s pessimistic view of the world and mankind’s ability to achieve redemption.  His art was highly sought after during his life and after, and among his most avid collectors was King Philip II of Spain. The triptych—and the rest of the oeuvre of Bosch—can be enigmatic because of the fantastic imagery he so often employed, so read on to unlock some of its mysteries.

1. Bosch is a figure almost as enigmatic as his art, as historical sources tell us very little about the celebrated Dutch painter. He spent his entire life in a northern ecclesiastical center of the Netherlands, hailing from a family of painters. Bosch was active in the Catholic Church and a member of a prestigious and conservative religious organization, and the importance he placed on religion and morality is evident in his works. Another influence on his art came from his in-laws. Bosch was married to the daughter of a pharmacist, and he included strange and fanciful interpretations of distilling and boiling apparatus in his paintings. Note, for example, the proliferation of glass cylinder, sphere, and beaker-like shapes in the central panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

2. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” contemplates mankind’s sin before the time of Noah. The panels on the right and left depict the prelude to and consequences of this sin. On the right, we see Eden, the terrestrial paradise. God presents Eve to Adam in a verdant setting filled with exotic birds and animals, but the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and the serpent wrapped around its trunk—can be seen towards the middle right edge of the panel. The strange pink structure in the center is the source of the four rivers of Paradise. The panel on the right shows the punishment of sin. In contrast to Eden, it is a nocturnal scene of torture inhabited by demons such as the human/ tree hybrid that anchors the middle of the panel. What was once pleasure is now pain— for example, musical instruments now serve as torture devices in the lower left.

3. How did we get from Paradise to Hell? The central scene, that which gives the triptych its name, provides the transition.  The children of Adam and Eve will be destroyed in the Flood and are on the brink of doom, but unwittingly, they indulge in pleasure and lust.  The scene is filled with oversized fruits and flowers, reminding the viewer not only of the fleeting nature of their sweetness and beauty, but also of the general ephemerality of pleasure. The amorous couple encased in the glass bubble in the lower left probably references a Dutch adage: “Happiness is like glass: it breaks quickly.”

Image Source and Citations:



Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.

3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Picasso's "Guernica"


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This week’s issue is curated by Jett, a recent Stanford graduate.

Ever feel like you can’t meet a deadline? Don’t sweat it - one of the most iconic works of art of the 20th century, Guernica, was painted in an incredible three weeks. After Nazi Condor bombers decimated the northern Spanish village of Guernica, Picasso was moved to depict the suffering of Guernica’s inhabitants. This powerful scene has left viewers both bewildered and emotional.

Newspaper1) Newsprint: Why only black and white? As in his other Cubist pictures, Picasso did this to mimic the look and feel of newsprint. Before there was Twitter, newspapers were important in disseminating information about the tragedy. The black and white also may have been a nod to photos or film, both supposedly “objective” sources of info.
Guernica Bull2) ¡Olé! Fascinated by both the beauty and tragedy of the corrida, Picasso uses the bullfight as a metaphor for aggression against the helpless. The bull, which may be interpreted as Fascism, is victorious against the weak horse, or the people. Looking at the weeping figures, these suffering characters are difficult to recognize or understand, partly because we have never seen such suffering in our own lives. Picasso deliberately constructs them from odd shapes and sharp lines to confuse and torment us, to inspire us to think more deeply about the minutiae of suffering and pain. Closer look: The aforementioned bull and a woman holding a dead child.
United Nations Security Council3) Power of art: Since its first showing in Paris, Guernica has been a masterpiece for peace. An incident arose in which the United Nations seemingly hung a sheet over a full size reproduction of Guernica when Colin Powell delivered a speech about the Iraq war in front of the iconic mural.

Guernica essentials:

  • Read: Herschel Chipp, Picasso's Guernica, 1988. Still the most thorough study in English of the mural masterpiece
  • Listen: World-renowned Art Historian TJ Clark gives the 2009 Mellon Lecture at the National Gallery about Picasso's Guernica
  • Visit: Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid. Surround yourself with modern Spanish masters including Picasso, Dali and Miro


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