Relevant categories: Art Deco,Bronzes
(Above photo - Chryselephantine - a sculpture made with gold and ivory as popularised by DH Chiparus)
Chryselephantine is basically a form of sculpture made from a combination of ivory and gold. The ivory was used to carve out the flesh of the sculpture while the gold went to the drapery. They were a common feature in Greek sculpture and, being the highest kind of plastic art, were featured more in religious art. Two of the most famous chryselephantine statues include that of Zeus at Olympia and Athena Parthenos in Athens. Today, chryselephantine sculpture refers to anything made by combining ivory with gold, onyx, silver, bronze or marble and was made popular by Demetre Chiparus the famouse art deco sculpturist.
History and Origins
(Above photo - Fan dancer bronze by Chiparus )
It is not clear the exact origin of chryselephantine sculpture. However, the earliest examples can be traced back to the second millennium BCE. At that time, some of the Aegean pieces of art featured ivory and gold. The Greeks later conquered these areas making the art part of their own. The most famous piece of art from that period is the Palaikastro Kouros, a masterpiece of Minoan art discovered in Crete.
(Above photo - Artemis statue from Ancient Greece)
In previous millennia, chryselephantine art had been an integral part of Egyptian as well as Mesopotamian sculpture. The Greeks adopted it and made it an integral part of their art up to the classical period when ivory and gold were used as decorations for Acrolithitic statues. Such statues had a wooden draperied body and well as stone feet, hands, and heads. Most of the chryselephantine sculptures were huge figures used in major spiritual sanctuaries and temples.
Features of Chryselephantine Statues
At the core of chryselephantine statues was a wooden frame, which was covered with carved sheets of ivory as a representation of the flesh. The statue would then have a sheet of gold to represent the armour, hair, drapery, and other physical features. Additionally, the sculptor would use coloured glass together with semi-precious and precious stones to highlight weaponry and the eyes.
(Above photo - The art deco bronzes of the 1920s often used Chryselephantine )
Thus chryselephantine statues were created to look magnificent. Depending on how magnificent they were, chryselephantine statues represented the cultural status and wealth of their owners. One would have to spend a lot of money just to buy one chryselephantine sculpture. Making one of these involved several master craftsmen skilled in jewellery art, carpentry, goldsmithing, sculpture, and ivory carving. A finished chryselephantine statue would require someone to regularly maintain it.
To cut down on the financial cost, the sculpture was made in a modular way. That way, the gold could be removed, melted, and used to form coins during times of austerity. When the individual’s finances improved, the gold would be replaced.
(Above photo - Art deco bronze statue by Chiparus )
Because of their valuable nature, many of the chryselephantine sculptures were dismantled or melted to recover precious metals in classical antiquity or the beginning of the medieval era. An example is the Athena Parthenos statue, which has since completely disappeared and only exists in the descriptions by Pausanias, a Greek explorer. However, there still exist several miniature statues with one on display at Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. You may find imitations of chryselephantine statues for sale in some of the antique stores across the world. Many of our range of Chiparus art deco bronzes are on display in the Canonbury Antiques Hertfordshire showroom so please get in touch for an appointment.
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