This intricately carved tile exhibits a distinctive curving arched shape that identifies it as a muqarnas element. A muqarnas is a stalactite‑like form that often adorns the interior curves of domes, niches, and portals of Islamic buildings. The precise origin of this tile remains unknown, although it is similar to tiles used at the Shah‑i Zinda funerary complex in Samarqand.
In their original context, tiles such as this one—each individually and meticulously crafted—would have constituted the architectural revetments of mosques, mausoleums, and other dynastic buildings in the Timurid period (ca. 1370–1507), particularly in the late fourteenth century. Similar tiles are found in many buildings in Timurid Iran, with some of the finest examples at the dynastic burial complex of Shah-i Zinda, just outside of Samarqand.
The rich shade of turquoise, highlighted by a white border, is typical of the architectural ornamentation of the Timurid period. Carved in deep relief with repeating circular vegetal scrolls diminishing in size toward the apex, the tile has a distinct curving-arch shape that characterizes it as a muqarnas element. Muqarnas is the honeycomb-like decoration that often adorns the interior curves of domes, niches, squinches, iwans, cornices, and portals of Islamic buildings. The shape was probably derived from the squinch, an architectural element that serves to distribute the weight of a dome and creates a transitional zone between a circular dome and its square base. This curved tile would have been combined with dozens, or even hundreds, of others (depending on their location in the building) to form an ornate faceted and curving surface that would capture light and tantalize the eye.
Although the exact origin of this tile remains unknown, it displays similarities to a muqarnas tile in the Aga Khan Collection that is dated to the same period, as well as to tiles still in situ at the Shah-i Zinda complex. Begun in Timur’s lifetime (1335–1405), Shah i-Zinda contains dozens of mausoleums, with tombs largely commissioned by the women of the Timurid court. Glazed and carved earthenware tiles such as this were used there in conjunction with tiles in other techniques, including mosaic and cuerda seca, and other materials, among them carved wood, stucco, and wall painting. At Shah-i Zinda muqarnas is most commonly employed in squinches, domes, and iwans, and tiles similar to the Metropolitan Museum’s example can be seen there at the mausoleums of princesses Shadi Malik and Qutluq Aqa, as well as in others.
Maryam Ekhtiar and Kendra Weisbin in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
William Milne Grinnell, New York (until d. 1920; bequeathed to MMA)
Joseph Breck. "The William Milne Grinell Bequest." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, o.s., vol. XV (1920). pp. 273-275.
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. 130, pp. 4, 192-193, ill. p. 192 (color).