PURISIMA CONCEPCION, Solid ivory figure with hands carved separately. Gold leaf decoration. Gold ornaments. 19th c., Ht: 21.5 cm., Gopiao Collection
By Jose Mari P. Treñas Photography by Patrick Uy
Long dismissed as crude and naïve expressions of alien faith, Philippine religious carvings in ivory are being seen in a new light. Exquisite examples of documented Philippine provenance in Europe and Mexico, beautiful pieces in the Intramuros Administration and the occasional rare item that still comes into the market, have debunked the conventional wisdom about Philippine ivories and have made historians and scholars rethink and reassess the same.
NIÑO DORMIDO, Ivory head, hands and feet mounted on wooden body. Garbed in vestment embroidered with gold thread. 19th c., Lebgth: 20 cm., Maralit Collection.
I first became interested in Philippine ivory when I was twelve. My family would troop over regularly to my lola’s house for Sunday lunch and while everybody would lazily linger over coffee and dessert, I would politely leave the dining table to sneak to the altar in my lola’s room. There I would seek out two ivory heads hidden in the lower drawer. Barely two inches in size, they were so cool to my touch. The color was so fleshlike, the glass eyes staring enigmatically ahead and the lips carved into hieratic smiles. Even the cracks that randomly ran from the forehead down the neck had their own strange beauty. I think my lolal noticed my fascination, for the two heads were placed in my pocket to take home. Although I did not buy my first ivory until two years ago, I was hooked. It was not the first.
In his introductory essay to the book, Masterpieces of Ivory from the Walters Art Gallery, which contains examples of Philippine ivory carvings bought in such diverse places as Venice and Paris, Richard Randall Jr. writes that, “throughout history, ivory has always been regarded as a rare and beautifuol substance, fit for gods and kings.” A passage in the Book of Kings which Randall quotes reads, “Once in three years comes the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold and silver and ivory, apes and peacocks.” Randall cites that many kings have sat on thrones made of ivory, Solomon among the first. A 17th century ivory throne made for one of the kings of Denmark still exists in the Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen.
The trade in ivory was mentioned in the Bible, both in the Book of Kings and Ezekiel. This has been subsequently confirmed by archaeological data. In Ezekiel, it is said that the men of Dedan on the Red Sea, “brought you for a present horns of ivory.” Aden, at the foot of the Red Sea, was the most active trading post of ivory when Marco Polo wrote about his travels in the 13th century. The route then started from East Africa to Zanzibar, then to Aden, up to the Red Sea to Egypt and overland to the Mediterranean. This route was pretty much the same in the 19th century, when ivory was shipped from Zanzibar through the Suez Canal and on to London and Antwerp.
What is Ivory?
In his excellent catalogue for the 19991 Philippine Exhibit of religious ivory carvings held at Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, Regalado Jose Jr. writes that, “Today, the term for ivory has come to include material with similar qualities in varying degrees, obtained from the teeth or tusks of other animals such as the walrus, narwhal, sea cow, and hippopotamus.” However, only the tusk of the elephant which can reach 8 feet in length and weigh as much as 200 pounds is regarded as “true ivory.”