[T]he olifant its echoing music speaks. – La Chanson du Roland — Sicily, c. 1100 A.D.
Sotheby’s December 2nd Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art sale in London featured a remarkable relic of the Middle Ages, an Oliphant, a great (47cm., 18Â½”) 12th century hunting horn, fashioned from the tusk of an elephant and once embellished with silver. Despite the recession, it sold for $194,950 / 139,250 GBP, considerably above the estimated price of 50,000â€”80,000 GBP.
The word ‘oliphant’ is a loanword from old French meaning ‘elephant’, which is first documented in the English translation of the Song of Roland in the 12th century. It described the ivory sounding horn with which the hero Roland summoned aid during the batter of Roncesvalles, shortly before his death at the hands of the Arabian enemy in 778. Carved from a whole elephant tusk and originally banded with silver and hung with cord, these horns would have produced a low but loud call. They were prized symbols of wealth and power, passed down through the centuries in Europe’s treasure houses.
Few oliphants from the eleventh and twelfth centuries survive. They are a fascinating witness to a unique period of cultural exchange between East and West on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Oliphants were carved from African ivory and were probably prevalent in Fatimid Egypt, although no example has survived. Until 1071 Sicily was part of the Fatimid empire. However, quarrels within the Muslim regime gave the Christian rulers of southern Italy an opportunity to send in Norman mercenaries as a conquering force. Roger I, who became Norman Count of Sicily and the first in the line of Norman rulers of Sicily, led the invasion. The Norman genius was not only in capturing this Islamic stronghold but in maintaining it successfully, by keeping Muslims and Byzantine Greeks in positions of influence. Using the heterogeneous nature of their society, the Normans in Sicily capitalised on their geographic location as a nexus of culture and trade. In the twelfth century, when the island became a kingdom, it was one of the wealthiest states in Europe, wealthier even than England.
The decoration of oliphants, most often with animals and scrollwork, sits within the tradition of Islamic imagery, without over-reliance on the human form. Oliphants carved by Muslim and Byzantine craftsmen for their new Catholic rulers continued in this style. The present Oliphant is very simply decorated and can be most closely compared to another in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris (OA 4069). The foliate designs on the two bands close to where the mouthpiece was originally secured, are carved to the same pattern and the body of the Oliphant is shaped in simple flat planes along its length. The Louvre oliphant is dated to the end of the 11th century. The twisted rope work design along the upper length of the present oliphant can be compared to a similar design on a twelfth century oliphant in the collection of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.