Principles of courtly love

In the late Middle Ages, popular romances and knight poems, as well as legends from the north, had an enormous influence on court culture. On their basis, court customs developed, an essential aspect of which was an image of ideal love. This was reflected in the ceremonies glorifying the figure of a lady. The decoration of a small case from the 2nd quarter of the 14th century is some kind of interpretation of the medieval world-view, centred around courtly love, which — interestingly — was an ethical problem. Its moralistic and didactic themes, having literary sources, evoked good and bad examples of behaviour, building the principles of proper behaviour.

A chest lid: courtly entertainments
Middle scene: a tournament
A duel was an extremely important element of medieval knighthood culture. Special competitions were organized at court, which put the skills of knights to the test. The fight itself was dedicated to the ladies who closely watched the battle taking place in front of them. Staging various scenes derived from chivalric romance was also a popular form of entertainment during tournaments.

The scene on the left: conquering the castle of love

This game consisted in building a makeshift construction, which was the titular castle of love, in which ladies were imprisoned. The knights, using only flowers, were supposed to breach the construction and release the trapped ladies.

The lid lock: receiving the key to the castle
The efforts of the knights were rewarded: they received the key to the castle of love in order to free the ladies.

The scene on the right: courtship
Each of the knights released the lady of his heart, and then courted her. The scene presents different circumstances and methods for showing courtship to a lady, for example, during a joint ride or a boat trip.

The front wall: lustful love versus righteous love
Two scenes on the left: Aristotle and Filis
A moralizing anecdote tells the story of Aristotle, who instructed Aleksander to leave his lover — Filis — because she was the reason why he had neglected his duties as a ruler. Alexander plotted an intrigue with her in order to ridicule the teacher. He arranged Aristotle and Filis’s meeting in the garden, during which the beautiful woman seduced the sage, who fell in love with her to such an extent that he let Filis ride on his own back, which Aleksander observed with satisfaction.

Two scenes on the right: Pyram and Tysbe
The story of the lovers is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pyram and Tysbe had been close to each other since they were children; however, they came from two feuding families, which forced them to meet in secret. During one of the meetings — when Tysbe was waiting for her beloved — a lion appeared, from which she hid on a tree, losing her coat in the course of the flight. Pyram, having arrived at the place, saw the lion tearing up the coat of his beloved and — thinking that she had died — stabbed himself with a knife out of despair. Upon seeing this, Tysbe, killed herself immediately after her beloved, using the same blade.

The rear wall: recognition of the knightly defence of a lady
Two scenes on the left: Lancelot
Lancelot was the greatest of the knights of the Round Table. His name was made famous by the adventures he had experienced during the search for the abducted Queen Guinevere — wife of King Arthur — known from the Arthurian Legends. The scenes from the chest present individual episodes of his story; namely, the tests which the brave knight had to pass in order to find his beloved queen. Those were, for example: fighting a lion and crossing a sword bridge.

Two scenes on the right: Gawain
Gawain was a nephew of King Arthur, whom we also know from the legends of the Knights of the Round Table. He had many unusual adventures during the quest to find the Holy Grail. One of them is illustrated by the scenes presented on the chest. Once, Gawain stopped in an enchanted castle, whose host offered him hospitality. The knight prudently went to sleep in his armour, thanks to which he survived the night, because his bed turned out to be full of sharp swords. When he managed to escape unscathed, a lion appeared in the chamber, which he had to fight. Gawain’s efforts were not in vain, because, in consequence, he freed the ladies imprisoned in the castle.

Left side: false love versus pure (platonic) love

The scene on the right: a unicorn hunt
Legends related to the unicorn taken from Physiologus — an ancient treatise — were extremely widespread in the Middle Ages and repeated in bestiaries. The unicorn symbolized purity, hence — according to legend — only a virgin could tame it as the animal rested beside her, laying its head on her womb. Only then could the hunters approach it in order to seize it. The stories associated with the magical properties of the unicorn gained deep Christian symbolism, but — in the context of platonic courtly love — the animal embodied a medieval female lover.

The scene on the left: Tristan and Isolde

The story of the unhappy love of Tristan and Isolde was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. The lovers — bound together by passion thanks to magic — met in secret. When King Mark — Isolde’s husband — found out, he decided to eavesdrop on them during the next tryst. Tristan and Isolde fortunately saw the head of the king hiding in the water reflected in the surface of the water, so they conducted an innocent conversation, dispelling his suspicions.

The right-hand side: fighting for wrong reasons versus fighting for a righteous purpose
The scene on the right: Enyas
The figure of the old knight Enyas is known from chivalrous romances, such as Lancelot or Tristram. The depiction discussed here shows an episode in which Enyas rescues a girl from the hands of a wild man. After the debacle, they both meet a young knight who wants to duel with him over the girl. Enyas — being sure of her decision — decides to give her a choice. The girl, however, rejects the old man in favour of the young knight, which provokes Enyas to fight him. Defeating the opponent, the old knight abandons the girl in the forest.

Stage on the left: Galahad
Galahad is the son of Lancelot and the sorceress acting as the guardian of the Holy Grail. He was one of the Knights of the Round Table, whose story focused on the quest for the Holy Grail, and who — as the worthiest of all the companions — finally found it. During his journey, he experienced various adventures, including the fight with seven knights, whose defeat resulted in the freeing of the ladies trapped in the castle. The scene on the chest depicts the moment when Galahad is greeted by an old man and handed the key to this castle.

The scenes, created on the basis of the same literary sources and court customs, made use of decorated objects of everyday use made of ivory, produced in Parisian workshops in the 14th century. They were primarily boxes, chests, or mirror frames. Their numerous examples — from collections of institutions all around the world — have been brought together on the project website Gothic Ivories.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Agnieszka Łaguna, Gotycka skrzyneczka z kości słoniowej w Skarbcu katedralnym na Wawelu, „Studia Waweliana”, t. VI–VII (1997/1998), pp. 5–28;
Marek Walczak, Skrzyneczka, [w:] Wawel 1000-2000, t. 1: Katedra Krakowska – biskupia, królewska, narodowa, katalog wystawy w Muzeum Katedralnym na Wawelu, 05–09.2000, red. Magdalena Piwocka, Dariusz Nowacki, Kraków 2000, kat. I/12, pp. 43–45.