The Ivory Mirror
The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe
Imprint: Bowdoin College Museum of ArtA&AePortal
We often imagine the Renaissance as an age of exceptional human progress and artistic achievement. But, intriguingly, macabre images proliferated in precisely this period: unsettling depictions of Death personified, of decaying bodies, of young lovers struck down in their prime. These morbid themes run riot in the remarkable array of artworks featured in The Ivory Mirror. Nearly 200 illustrated artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry to exquisitely carved small sculptures—present us with an aspect of this era that is at once darker and more familiar than we might have expected. Focused on the challenge of making choices in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, Renaissance artists turned to poignant, often macabre imagery to address the critical human concern of acknowledging death, while striving to create a personal legacy that might outlast it. The essays gathered here discuss the development and significance of this transformative art of the past, while exploring themes that are still relevant today: how does one navigate the implicit tension between mortality and morality and seek to balance individual pleasure with the pursuit of a greater good?