This panel, probably from a wooden door, is deeply carved with two symmetrical horse heads in relief. Attention to detail is evident in the beaded bands and bridles amid arabesques. The piece was carved to different depths in order to produce a pleasing chiaroscuro effect, a technique mastered by Fatimid woodworkers. A companion piece, almost certainly from the same door, is in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo.
Although this piece bears no inscription or other intrinsic dating evidence, it can be attributed to the eleventh century on the basis of stylistic comparison to works from dated contexts. Wooden beams and panels discovered in secondary use in Mamluk buildings erected at the site of the Western Fatimid Palace in Cairo are very similar in style and design. These wooden elements are believed to have been originally carved for that palace, which Caliph al-‘Aziz (r. 975–96) erected and Caliph al-Mustansir (r. 1036–94) renovated.
The composition of this panel centers on a pair of addorsed horses’ heads. Arching into S-forms, their necks merge in the middle of the panel with a stylized vegetal design of stalks and leaves that intertwines with the surrounding vine scroll. The rounded and beveled edges of these elements recall woodwork in the Abbasid and Tulunid period "beveled-style," but are distinguished from it by the deep relief with which they are carved and by the distinct figure-ground relationship that results. Furthermore, a second level of shallow relief appears in details such as the eyes and nostrils of the horses, their bridles ornamented with pearl borders, and the serrated leaf elements, all of which are executed with delicately incised lines. The entire exuberant zoomorphic scroll is contained within a beveled rectangular frame.
The Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, has in its collection a panel of nearly identical design and dimensions that was almost certainly created for the same context. The two panels may be elements of a door, similar to one also preserved in the same museum. That door consists of seven such rectangular plaques arranged both vertically and horizontally within a plain framework. Alternatively, the horse-headed panels may have belonged to a piece of furniture, such as a chest, cupboard, or screen.
Ellen Kenney (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
[ Lucy Olcott Perkins, Florence, until 1911; sold to MMA]
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Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 112, pp. 136, 163, ill. p. 163 (color).