Attack on the Castle of Love: Flower Power or “Traffic in Women”? An Allegorical Representation in Ivory Analysed from the Perspective of War and Gender

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Medieval and Renaissance, Research Forum

Attack on the Castle of Love: Flower Power or “Traffic in Women”? An Allegorical Representation in Ivory Analysed from the Perspective of War and Gender

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London

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ivory carved mirror back

Ivory mirror back, Musée du Louvre, Paris.


  • Dr Alexandra Gajewski - The Burlington Magazine and the Institute of Historical Research, London

Organised by

  • Dr Jessica Barker - The Courtauld Institute of Art
Open to all, free admission

Seats are allocated on a first come first served basis.

Annual Gothic Ivories Seminar

The depiction of the Castle of Love appeared rather suddenly around 1300, in particular on such luxury objects as ivory mirror backs and caskets. Interpreting the image as an allegory of the conquest of a lady’s heart, scholarship in the early twentieth-century categorised these objects as secular and endeavoured but failed to identify the origin of the image. More recent scholarship has put this unresolved question to the side and, having exposed the image as a ‘thinly veiled sexual pun’, focused on questions related to the function and the gendering of the image. In fact, as this paper will argue, it necessary to assess its sources in Biblical exegesis and theological allegory, and to understand they way they are parodied on the basis of Ovid and the Roman de la Rose, in order to fully understand the image’s functions with respect to its male and female audience. Growing out of a semi-religious, semi-secular context that is difficult to fully appreciate today, these small but sophisticated carved objects were part of a larger phenomenon of erotic images that were to have a significant influence on the development of later imagery.


Alexandra Gajewski is Reviews Editor at the Burlington Magazine and associate fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, London. She studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where she obtained her Ph.D. on Gothic architecture in northern Burgundy. Her research concentrates on the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, especially on questions of regionalism and identity, as well as on monasticism, cult, patronage and the role of women. She has published widely on Gothic architecture in Burgundy and Cistercian architecture in medieval Europe. Her publications also include studies of Emile Mâle, women and textiles, late Gothic architecture in Avignon as well as (forthcoming) an analysis of the ‘Castle of Love’ on fourteenth-century ivory mirror backs.


This seminar is part of the Gothic Ivories Project at the Courtauld Institute of Art, an expanding online database of ivory sculptures made in Western Europe between ca. 1200-ca. 1530: 

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