This tour de force of ivory carving represents Pluto, the god of the underworld, abducting Proserpina, the daughter of Jupiter and Ceres. With striking naturalism, the sculptor conveys Proserpina’s surprise and fright through her wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression and outstretched hand, as well as the anxious desperation of Pluto’s ardor, through his slanted brows, tensed limbs, and insistent grasp that depresses the flesh of his captive. Proserpina’s drapery, so thinly carved in places as to be translucent, billows behind her as the couple speeds toward the underworld, guided on their path by the torch-bearing putto at the base of the composition. The sense of movement together with the twisted forms of Pluto and Proserpina create a dramatic vortex of energy. Further inviting the viewer’s gaze is the sculptor’s masterful handling of delicate details, from the curling tendrils of Pluto’s hair and beard to the pearls adorning Proserpina’s coiffeur and neck, as well as the highly polished sheen of the figures’ flesh.
The author of the sculpture has recently been identified as Matthias Steinl, a versatile artist and architect who served as ivory sculptor to the imperial court of Vienna in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The work’s mythological subject matter would have appealed to Steinl’s humanist patrons, who collected objects of precious and exotic materials such as ivory for display in Kunstkammern (cabinets of curiosity). Such works were often intended to be admired up close and from all sides, which the dynamic forms of Steinl’s figural group encourage. This rare example of the artist’s work in ivory is a masterpiece of its genre.