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Exhibit of the month

Exhibit of the month

Exhibit of the Month is a series initiated by the Jagiellonian University Museum with the beginning of the new academic year. Each month we will explain the Museum collection to you, choosing a single exhibit or a group of exhibits which usually are not shown to the open public. This month's feature is a collection of olifant horns.

In 1869, Baron Edward Rastawiecki (1804–1874), a notable collector (Fig. 2), patron of arts and researcher of historical art, donated to the Jagiellonian University a collection of decorative art, including three complete olifants and three olifant fragments.

Hunting and battle horns have been known for several thousand years. They were made from animal horns, elephant tusks, metal, and ceramics.  However, only ivory horns (from elephant tusks) decorated with carvings can be called olifants.  They had a metal frame, a metal mouthpiece, and suspension elements.   The oldest olifants of this type were made in the 11th to 12th century by craftsmen living in Southern Italy and Byzantium, using the blows of elephants living on the east coast of Africa or the blows of Asian elephants from India. They were adorned with hunting scenes, animal fights and ornamental decoration.                

The very term olifant has its origins in the same period. It was derived from the Old French language spoken in France from 800 to 1400. The word meant both elephant and true ivory, the bone from the tusks (blows ) of an elephant, as well as horns made from it.

The word olifant (oliphant), meaning ivory horn, first appeared in the Song of Roland (c. 1100), an Old French epic in the genre of chanson de geste ( geste, from the Latin gesta — a retelling of historical events).  It describes the battle of Count Roland, commander of the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, against the Saracens in 778 in the Roncevaux Pass in Spain. Surprised by a more numerous enemy, Roland refused to use the olifant in the name of honour, condemning himself and his comrades to certain death.


Comrade Rollanz, sound the olifant, I pray;

If Charles hear, the host he'll turn again;

Will succour us our King and baronage."

Answers Rollanz: "Never, by God, I say,

For my misdeed shall kinsmen hear the blame,

Nor France the Douce fall into evil fame!

The Song of Roland. Translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff. Project Gutenberg 1996


As we know, in the end Count Roland blew the olifant, summoning Charlemagne not to rescue him, but only so that the emperor could avenge the knights and bury them with dignity. With Roland, twelve French peers and 20,000 knights died. According to tradition, Durendal, Roland's sword, and his olifant were given to Charlemagne, who deposited the horn in the Saint–Séverin Church in Bordeaux. The legend of Roland became known throughout Europe. Its hero became the model of the faithful, heroic knight, unflinching in the face of death.  Roland's oliphant was a symbol of those virtues of chivalry that its owner possessed.

Seven churches in various European locations hold olifants known as Roland's horns. They have always been rare objects.  Today, 75 olifants from the 11th to 12th centuries are preserved in world collections.

The material used to make these olifants has long been known to humans. Elephants are the oldest land animals on earth.  Ivory was used to make decorative objects as early as the Palaeolithic period, 100,000 BC , and the oldest relics of carved ivory, female and animal figures. date from around 30,000 BC.  Battle elephants were used by the Persians, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal. In Roman triumphal processions, elephant tusks were carried as trophies. In ancient times, various objects were made from elephant tusks. The use of ivory horns was also known in ancient times. However, it was not a continuous tradition.  The elephant was described in mediaeval treatises on animal symbolism. It was an animal that lived outside the boundaries of the Christian world and had not been seen by any European for several hundred years since antiquity.   Until 801, when the caliph Rahun al-Rashid of the Abbasid dynasty presented Charlemagne with an Asiatic elephant, which was brought from Baghdad to Aachen in 802 by Isaac, a Jew from Africa. The straight-line distance between Baghdad and Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) is 6,750 km.  Charlemagne's elephant, called Abul-Abbas, survived four years in captivity.  Images of him are known. Emperor Charlemagne also had chess pieces in the form of elephant figures.

Another living elephant would be seen in Europe more than four hundred years later. It was always known that olifants were made from the tusks of elephants, unlike the tusks of narwhals, which from the Middle Ages until the 17th century were regarded as the horns of the mythical unicorn.

During the mediaeval period, olifants were only used by knights as battle horns and as a courtly signal instrument. Their sound announced the start of a battle or a hunt. They were also symbols of authority over land granted to a vassal by a ruler. In mediaeval England, they were handed out during ceremonial granting of land or appointment to office. Sometimes relics, or the mortal remains of a saint, were placed in them. On occasion, the relic was soil, deemed as holy, brought back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Olifants were also used as drinking horns. In such cases, they had an expensive silver setting and were placed on a silver base. They were always objects of exceptional rank testifying to the high social standing of the owner. As valuable family heirlooms, they were passed down from generation to generation.  In the 11th and 12th century, olifants were offered to churches as precious objects, as evidenced by their treasury inventories. At that time, they were often additionally carved with religious imagery and scenes. When olifants contained relics, they were displayed in churches.  Elephant tusks hung in the Vatican basilica by the tombs of St Peter and Pope Sixtus IV. The presence of such objects in temples frequented by pilgrims raised the status of the place.  Olifants also appear in the inventories of the royal treasuries. The inventory of the crown treasury in the Wawel royal castle from 1669 contains a description of an olifant, already mentioned in the inventory made in 1475: "(...) A white ivory trumpet framed in gilded silver (...)."                                                    

Exquisitely engraved olifants returned to Europe in the 15th century. They were made in Portuguese West Africa by local craftsmen of the Sapo tribe and exported to Europe.  In addition to hunting scenes and floral ornaments, they featured inscriptions and coats of arms, usually royal ones. This type of olifants was also made in the 16th and 17th centuries.  They decorated the cabinets of curiosities (Latin: camera raritatis) in royal and princely residences.  Ivory from the west coast of Africa was softer, lighter, and better suited to carving than the harder ivory from the African east coast.      

The Baroque period saw the creation of huge collections of works made from carved ivory, but by the mid-18th century the art of ivory had vanished. During that period, porcelain became popular. Ivory carvers were sometimes employed by porcelain manufacturers as carvers of porcelain figurine models.

In the 19th century, during a period of revived interest in historical arts, styles of past ages were revisited and new works imitating the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles appeared, and even copies, as in the case of the metal version of the olifant from the Turin Armoury (Fig. 8).

Collectors took a renewed interest in olifants. There have been olifants made according to old designs, mainly in Renaissance and Baroque styles. They were decorated with hunting scenes, inscriptions, medallion portraits, and engraved dates suggesting that the object was made in the 16th or 17th century.  The level of workmanship of these olifants was very high. They were coveted collector's objects. Presently, it is difficult to determine where they were made, as both France and Germany had numerous workshops specialising in ivory carving.  The olifants in Rastawiecki's collection date from this period, having been made in France and Germany before 1869, perhaps commissioned by the collector himself.

Text: Beata Frontczak