Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), probably Kandy
2nd half of the 16th century
Carved ivory with traces of gilding; and silver
10.5 x 18.8 cm

This carved ivory comb, probably intended as a wedding gift, was made in Ceylon in the second half of the sixteenth century; the teeth, now lost, were replaced in silver. It depicts two large facing śẹrapēṉdiya in pierced openwork crowning a rectangular panel with low-relief vegetal scrolls flanking a heart-shaped motif. The mythological beasts, with the head of a lion and the body of the sacred goose haṃsa, are depicted following a typical Tamil design (sarja anna paḍçi). Renaissance combs are always carved on both faces and consist of two registers of teeth, one fine and the other broader above and below a central, usually narrative strip. Like their European counterparts, in early-modern Ceylon the most common type is also the double-sided comb, square in shape, and with a central panel usually in pierced openwork and carved on both sides. An ivory comb (of three) with gold mounts set with rubies – which was gifted in 1572 alongside other important Ceylonese ivory carvings, by Catarina of Austria (1507-1578) to Albrecht V Duke of Bavaria (r. 1550-1579) – while being of this type, was modelled on European examples. It belongs to the Schatzkammer der Residenz in Munich. Featuring fine teeth on top and rake teeth below, with concave upper and lower edges and masterfully carved in the central band with four panels featuring real and mythological animals divided by pierced openwork quatrefoil friezes, it reached the Lisbon court in 1542 with the Kōṭṭe embassy sent by Bhuvanekabāhu VII (r. 1521-1551). Based on the type of low-relief carving and the specific decorative repertoire, the present comb belongs to a group of rare ivories made in the second half of the sixteenth century during a period of Ceylon`s history which was marked by wars, and which saw the rise and fall of diverse characters as rulers of different kingdoms on the island, where South Indian and local Buddhist aesthetics vied for dominance. The shift from a more Buddhist decorative repertoire, as seen in the Munich ivories to a more South Indian artistic tradition is apparent in the carvings of this group. When we learn that Rājasiṁha I (r. 1581-1593), king of Sītāvaka and of Kandy until 1592 went as far as to convert to Hinduism, it becomes easier to understand this artistic shift. It also helps us to explain the shape of the present comb, which has little to do either with the European types copied at Kōṭṭe, or the traditional shapes of later Kandyan combs and corresponds to a well-known South Indian type.

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