Ivory Relief of the Crucifixion

China or Philippines, late 16th or early 17th century

15 cm high, 10 cm wide

Stock no.: A5216


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Full Description

Ivory Relief of the Crucifixion

A rare religious plaque depicting The Piercing of Jesus’ Side (John 19:33-34), for personal devotion, delicately carved in ivory by Chinese craftsmen in South China or, most probably, in the Philippines (Manila). This and other similar plaques with complex religious imagery were intended as visual aids for devotional practices as promoted by the Jesuits in Asia in their missionary work and as items for export, namely to Central and South America, and the Iberian Peninsula.[1] Recent archaeological finds, namely from the shipwreck of a Manila galleon, the Santa Margarita (1601) off the Mariana islands (Ladrones), has yielded a wealth of information on the chronology and production of devotional ivories made by Chinese and Filipino master carvers in the early seventeenth-century Philippines; a production which in fact predates by half a century the Goan ivory carving industry.[2]       

The present plaque, with its carved moulded frame, is remarkable for the quality of its carving.[3] Some of the iconographic elements, given the fragility of the material, project dangerously from the background, namely the long spear and the Longinus horse’s legs. The carved plaque faithfully copies a contemporary engraving by Johan Sadeler I (1550-1600), after a drawing by Maarten de Vos (1532-1603) which miraculously survives in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt ( inv. 2744). Inscribed with the date 1582, it depicts The Piercing of Jesus’ Side, where we see Longinus, the Roman soldier (depicted as a centurion) on horseback, piercing with the Holy Lance the side of the crucified Jesus flanked by the two crucified thieves, while two angels on clouds collect the blood and water that flowed from the nails piercing his hands and the wound inflicted by Longinus on Jesus’ hear and lungs; on the right foreground the kneeled Mary Magdalene (with her ointment jar) and the standing figures of the Virgin and John the Evangelist. The early 17th-century Christian devotee would gaze on the finely carved ivory plaque and its powerful imagery and meditate on the water and blood that flowed from the crucified Christ’s wounds; the “water” symbolising entrance into the Church through baptism, and “blood” symbolising the strength of life given through the Eucharist. A similar example survives in the Capilla (or Iglesia) de la Vera Cruz in Salamanca, Spain, having been recently published by the late Margarita Estella Marcos.[4] 

There are some minor differences between the two plaques, namely in the presence of the symbols of the sun and moon above the arms of the cross, absent on our example, and on the posture of the angels, which do not appear on Vos’ drawing nor on Sadeler’s print and are reminiscent of an earlier depiction of The Crucifixion by Albrecht Dürer. While the carving quality of our examples seems slightly superior to the one preserved in Salamanca, it is highly possible that the two plaques were made at the same workshop in early 17th-century Manila.

[1] See Alan Chong, “Christian ivories by Chinese artists. Macau, the Philippines, and elsewhere, late 16th and 17th centuries”, in Alan Chong (ed.), Christianity in Asia. Sacred art and visual splendour (cat.), Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2016, pp. 204-207. See also Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Translation and metamorphosis in the Catholic Ivories of China, Japan and the Philippines, 1561-1800”, in Nuno Vassallo e Silva (ed.), Ivories in the Portuguese Empire, Lisboa, Scribe, 2013, pp. 233-290; Margarita Estella Marcos, Marfiles de las provincias ultramarinas orientales de España y Portugal, Ciudad de México, Espejo de Obsidiana, 2010; and Trusted, Marjorie, “Propaganda an Luxury: Small-scale Baroque Sculptures in Viceregal America and the Philippines”, in Donna Pierce, Ronald Osaka (eds.), Asia and Spanish America. Trans-Pacific Artistic and Cultural Exchange, 1500-1850, Denver, Denver Art Museum, 2009, pp. 151-163.

[2] See Marjorie Trusted, “Survivors of a Shipwreck: Ivories from a Manila Galleon of 1601”, Hispanic Research Journal, 14.5, 2013, pp. 446-462.

[3] For comparable examples regarding the quality of the carving, some whose engraved sources of inspiration of European origin have been identified, see Hugo Miguel Crespo (ed.), A Arte de Coleccionar. Lisboa, a Europa e o Mundo na Época Moderna (1500-1800). The Art of Collecting. Lisbon, Europe and the Early Modern World (1500-1800), Lisboa, AR-PAB, 2019, pp. 334-338, cat. 49.

[4] See Gloria Espinosa Spínola, Margarita M. Estella Marcos, Cristina Esteras Martín, Visiones de América: Arte desde el confín del mundo. Colección Francisco Marcos (cat.), Burgos, Fundación Caja de Burgos, 2018, p. 350.


Ivory Relief of the Crucifixion