French gothic ivory diptychs have been, since the 13th century, a portable devotional companion for the pious. Commonly seen as the close relatives of the illuminated manuscript, they bring forth, in three dimensions, the concept of private devotion away from church, and innovation in the artistic dramatisation of the lives of Christ and the Virgin.
The availability of ivory and the growing number of production centres in France during the 13th and 14th centuries suggests that craftsmen were catering for a large demand in such devotional objects. Their purpose varied with size and quality, but diptychs such as the present lot were made for hand-held contemplation or to be placed on a table as a visual and tangible aid to prayer.
Juxtaposed in the present example are two representations of the Virgin and Child adorned by attendants and the crucified Christ. This type of representation follows not only an established narrative tradition that focused predominantly on the Passion and the life of the Virgin, but also a stylistic convention that remained consistent for over two centuries of artistic production. This stylistic approach is governed by the harmonious and geometric representation of the principal figures. The importance of the Virgin and Child on the left is suggested by their disproportionately larger size than of the flanking attendants. In unison however, these four figures comfortably fill the area beneath the gothic architectural backdrop and contain none of the awkwardness or rigidity of, for example, 4th century BC Greek relief sculpture where deities tower above the clearly inferior mortals. Similarly, on the right leaf, the central dominant figure of Christ divides two virtually symmetrical groups of people - to the left are the three Maries with the Virgin's swoon being reflected by St. John's posture on the right who is also accompanied by two attendants.