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True Colors: The Damascus Room


Pen Box

Object Name:
Pen box
13th century
Northern Iraq or Western Iran, Al-Jazira
Brass; inlaid with silver and gold
Box closed: H. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm) W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm) D. 1 11/16 in. (4.3 cm) Wt, 13.3 oz. (377.1 g) Box opened: H. 4 7/8 in. (12.4 cm) W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm) D. 1 3/16 in. (3 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Joseph W. Drexel, 1889
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Muslim metalworkers produced large numbers of pen boxes, many of which were richly decorated with inlays of gold, silver, and copper. A typical medieval Islamic calligrapher's pen box is an elongated rectangular object with rounded corners, about ten inches long, three inches wide, and two inches tall. In its simple construction, it is composed of a main body and a lid with two hinges along one of the long sides and a clasp on the opposite side. The interior includes a receptacle to hold the inkwell in one corner while the remaining space is reserved for a variety of reed pens and penknives. The present pen box shows a typical overall silver-inlaid decoration combining calligraphic, vegetal, and figural designs both on the exterior and the interior surfaces. It is, however, unique in that the main field on the lid is occupied by three roundels depicting the Moon flanked by the planets Jupiter and Venus in the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Libra, respectively. The box therefore also had an astrological significance, being most likely associated with the owner's birth, whereas the moon took on a talismanic relevance, since its image symbolically protected the entire object.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Arabic, naskh script, underside and top of lid; lid, top: "Glory, victory, prosperity, wealth, generosity, glory, virtues, and Hatim* - like generosity... "; lid, bottom: "And on your side the Arabs and Persians ... ... ". (Yassir al-Tabba).

    *Hatim at-TA'I was an Arab man whose excessive generosity became a legend.

  • Provenance

    Joseph W. Drexel, New York (until d. 1888); his widow, Lucy Wharton Drexel(1888–89; gifted to Museum in Joseph Drexel's name)

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History