Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Casket Lid with a scene of the Attack on the Castle of Love
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    These scenes are from the lid of an ivory casket from 14th century France. The imagery shows a common theme known to scholars as the “Attack on the Castle of Love”. The leftmost panel depicts the actual assault on the castle of love, and features women defending their castle with flowers, cross bows, and catapults, from a group of attacking men. The central panels portray a tournament between two armored knights with ladies and children looking on. The final panel on the lid depicts a mock tournament with women and men jousting together with flowers and oak branches, and couples looking on from the balconies. Together, these three scenes make up the traditional Attack on the Castle of Love sequence. The sides of the casket also depict scenes traditionally associated with the Attack on the Castle of Love motif. These panels include stories of Gawain, Lancelot and the three maidens at the Château Merveil, the story of Aristotle, Alexander and Phyllis, the story of the capture of the unicorn, and the story of Galahad receiving the keys to the Castle of the Maidens.

    The Attack on the Castle of Love was a secular motif that was somewhat common in ivory carvings during the medieval period. The 13th through 15th centuries saw the production of many of these ivories, all with variants of the same core scenes. Some scholars have suggested that the finely made French composite ivory caskets from the 14th century may have come from the same workshop, although there are enough differences among these ivories that it is unlikely that all of them came from the same artist. Much of the inspiration for the secondary scenes came from Arthurian legend. There is often a disparity in the scenes surrounding the attack on the castle of love on different carvings, but the only major variation on the main panels themselves involves the final scene of the Attack on the Castle of Love: the jousting scene. Some versions of the Attack on the Castle of Love, such as the Jadwiga Casket in Kraków, have replaced the jousting scene with a scene depicting two lovers on horseback, riding across a bridge over top of two lovers in a boat.

    The jousting scene was often pictured instead of the pairs of lovers because it was meant to emphasize the irony and comedic role reversal of the motif of the Attack on the Castle of Love. In the Middle Ages, women did not engage in jousting and tournaments as more than spectators and trophies. In the scene of the Attack on the Castle of Love, however, women take on a new role as active participants in the action. In addition to the comedic elements of the scene, the Attack on the Castle of Love also serves to be a metaphor for the activities of courtship. The castle is thought by scholars to represent the body of a woman, while the male attackers represent a man’s attempts at courtship.

    Ivories with scenes of the Attack on the Castle of Love were often gifts from men to their lovers or wives. The images provided visual pleasure and symbolized their relationship, so that the woman could be reminded of her love. Tournaments were an important part of courtly relationships because they were opportunities for men to prove their worth to potential wives and their families. In this period, women participated in these activities as spectators whose affections were seen as trophies for young men. They could express their love by granting their approval to suitors through such meaningful courtly rituals as awarding favors and serving meals. In the Attack on the Castle of Love, however, women are shown participating in many traditionally male courtly duties such as jousting and knightly combat. This role-reversal echoes the theme of the power of love which gives women the upper hand. As Phyllis humiliates the learned Aristotle, the women at the Castle of Love hold the power to reward or reject the men who offer their love. However, as Ruth Karras has argued, women’s power was in reality essentially symbolic since they functioned as the currency by which a man’s status was measured by other men.

  • Source: Walters Art Museum
  • Rights: Public domain. Made available through a Creative Commons Zero License
  • Subject (See Also): Arthurian Romance Castles Courtly Love Ivories Power of Women (Literary Topos) Sexuality Tournaments Weapons
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1330- 1350
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: Baltimore, Maryland, Walters Art Museum, Inv. 71.264
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Sculptures
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Ivory; Iron (fittings added later); Casket (or Coffret)
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 11.4- 11.7/24.6- 25.2/12.4
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: “Casket (coffert) (Lid).” Gothic Ivories Project at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. URL: www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk;
    Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age. Edited by Peter Barnet. Detroit Institute of Arts, and Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery, 1997;
    Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Young Knights under the Feminine Gaze.” The Premodern Teenager: Youth in Society, 1150-1650. Edited by Konrad Eisenbichler. Publications of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, Essays and Studies, 1. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2002. Pages 189-205;
    Schultz, James A. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality. University of Chicago Press, 2006;
    Wheatley, Abigail. The Idea of the Castle in Medieval England. York Medieval Press, 2004;
    Williamson, Paul and Glyn Davies. Medieval Ivory Carvings: 1200-1550; Part II. V&A Publishing, 2014. Pages 656-9.