Overall: H. 8 7/8 in. (22.3 cm)
W. 15 3/16 in. (38.6 cm)
D. 7 7/8 in. (20 cm)
Lid: H. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm)
W. 14 5/16 in. (36.4 cm)
D. 8 1/16 in. (20.5 cm)
Container: H. 5 5/16 in. (13.5 cm)
W. 15 3/16 in. (38.6 cm)
D. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm)
One of the most accomplished examples of carved ivory known from Norman Italy, the so-called "Morgan casket" is also one of the clearest expressions of the international artistic milieu in which it was created. Pairs of men in turbans and tunics stand guard at the corners of the casket, recalling in style and programmatic use similar figures on the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina at Palermo. Medallions on the side panels are filled with fantastic beasts and birds, which are hunted by men with spears.
One of the most accomplished and yet most understudied objects of carved ivory from the Norman-ruled areas of southern Italy is the so-called Morgan Casket. These ivories were created in an extraordinary milieu that linked Fatimid traditions (filtered through the Islamic community of the southern Italian peninsula) with new artistic approaches that arose in France, northern Italy, and the Germanic world. All this occurred in a region that had witnessed a productive medley of Roman and Greek-Byzantine cultures for many centuries before the arrival of either the Muslims or the Normans.
This large box was made by joining nine decorated panels, four for the body and five for the lid. The structure was completed with four narrow strips attached to the bottom of the lid. These strips were necessary because, unlike the great majority of ivory boxes with four vertical panels joined at the sides, the panels on this lid are slanted and form a truncated pyramid. This casket also displays an unusual design for its corners. On each, a pair of stern-looking, bearded men wearing tunics and carrying straight swords stand on a pedestal, as if they were guardians of the precious contents of the box. The four corner units were first carved as single blocks, then the two figures in relief were arranged at a ninety-degree angle facing away from the box and protruding from its perimeter. Because of the corner units, the panels of the body are shorter than the sides of the lid, with the narrow strips facilitating the transition between both sections.
The box gives the impression of being uncommonly delicate and lightweight because of the openwork on the body: four narrow strips are connected vertically to the lower edges of the panels through cylindrical pegs spaced at regular intervals. Metal fasteners, now lost, added significantly to the original appearance of the casket. A single clasp and a rectangular locking plate appeared on the front, and two large hinges on the back; their locations are still evident. Attachments for a handle are also visible on the top of the lid.
Carved in low relief, the figural decoration on all the panels is standard for such ivories and does not have a specific narrative. The larger individual animals and human figures are encircled by continuous vegetal scrolls, while small birds and leaves fill the other available spaces. Symmetry predominates, with pairs of animals facing each other or a man with a spear attacking a feline head-on, although the frontal panel shows an antelope and a gryphon-like quadruped both facing right. The overall quality of the carving is exceptional when compared to that of similar works. A few vignettes stand out, including a veiled woman sitting inside a howdah atop an imposing kneeling camel, carved on one side of the lid; this motif is also the most reminiscent of the Fatimid, North African Islamic models for these works.
J. P. Morgan acquired this splendid casket from the Galerie Imbert in Rome in 1910, but the object had been known since it was exhibited in Brussels in 1880, when it belonged to G. Vermeersch.
Stefano Carboni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. There were originally seventeen pegs along the longer sides and eight along the shorter ones; many of these have now been replaced.
2. Vermeersch was a member of the Musée Royal d’Antiquites de Bruxelles. See de Roddaz 1882, p. 196, fig. 2, for the earliest drawing and reference to this casket.
G. Vermeersch, Brussels(in 1882); [ Bourgeois Frères, Cologne, until 1904; sale, Krings andLempertz, Cologne, October 27–29, 1904, no. 1055]; [ Galerie A. Imbert, Rome, until 1910; sold to Morgan]; J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1910–d. 1913; his estate 1913–17; gifted to MMA)
Basilewsky, A., and A. Darcel. Collection Basilewsky : catalogue raisonné précédé d'un essai sur les art industriels du Ier au XVIe siècle. vol. 1-2. Paris, 1874. no. 51, p. 15, ill. pl. X, see also casket in Cathedral at Bayeux.
de Roddaz, Camille. L’art ancien à l’exposition nationale belge. Brussels, 1882. p. 196, ill. fig. 2.
Guide to the Loan exhibition of the J. Pierpont Morgan collection. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1914. p. 8.
Breck, Joseph, and Meyric R. Rogers. Pierpont Morgan Wing: A Handbook. 2 ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1929. p. 52.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Mohammedan Decorative Arts. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930. p. 101, ill. fig. 46 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 129, ill. fig. 73 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 3rd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1958. p. 129.
Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. "Muslim: An Early Fatimid Ceramist." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 26 (May 1968). pp. 262-263, ill. fig. 12 (b/w).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970. no. 129, p. 159, ill. (b/w).
Kühnel, Ernst, and J. & S. Goldschmidt. Die Islamische Elfenbeinskulpturen VII–XIII Jahrhundert. no. 30. Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 1971. no. 84, pp. 19-23, 28, 62, 65, 67, 70, 72, ill. pls. 84, 86.
Weitzmann, Kurt. "Ivories and Steatites." In Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. vol. 3. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1972. p. 8, ill. fig. 40.
Shalem, Avinoam. "Islamic Objects in Historical Context." In The Oliphant. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2004. p. 63, ill. fig. 60.
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. 39, pp. 4, 15, 55, 70-71, 137, ill. p. 71 (color).