The original use of this panel is unknown, although the Qur'anic content of its inscription suggests a devotional meaning. The arches and columns reflect regional architectural forms. Similar panels had different functions—depending on their context and inscriptional content—as mihrabs (prayer niches), sometimes recording an event, pious gifts, or funerary elements, or commemorating the construction of all or part of a building.
Two Tiles with Niche Design (MMA 30.95.184 and Keir Collection K.1.2014.296)
The original context and use of these two panels, which are similar in shape, decoration, and the religious content of their descriptions, are unknown, but they certainly have some devotional meaning or aspect. Their rectangular shape and niche design links them to a large group of panels, most often made of stone or ceramic, attested in most Islamic territories. Objects in the group date from the ninth century onward, and their function and meaning are likewise debated. Depending on the context of their discovery or the content of their inscriptions, they have been variably explained as flat or commemorative mihrabs, tombstones, and, more infrequently, pious gifts. An otherwise coherent group from Ghazni, Afghanistan, bears an even larger variety of texts: Qur’anic verses associated with mosques, building texts associated with mosques and mihrabs, blessings to the owner, and a text in Persian, probably a poem. They suggest an even broader set of functions, for both religious and private buildings as well as in funerary settings, and further underscore the importance of context in the interpretation of those panels whose uses are not explicated via epigraphic means.
While these two panels are similar in overall composition, they present certain details that reflect regional architectural forms. The choice of materials offers further indication of geographic differentiation. The MMA panel shows a niche with a pointed arch enclosing a vegetal motif. Its leaves recall the scalloped tympanum more often encountered in the western Islamic lands, where the legacy of Late Antique and Byzantine shapes is strong. Together with the columns’ twisted shafts and characteristic capitals and bases encountered in Abbasid architecture in Iraq, the Jazira, and Syria, as well as the altered, seemingly alkaline turquoise glaze, they speak to a Jaziran provenance.The honeycomb pattern in the tympanum of the Keir Collection tile, as well as the shape of its niche and its opacified turquoise glaze, speaks instead to Iran.
Both panels bear religious and Qur’anic inscriptions that express piety but are otherwise not indicative of a specific setting or function. The use of the Qur’anic verses 2:137 in MMA 30.95.184 and 5:55 in Keir Collection K.1.2014.296 do not find many parallels in monumental epigraphy. The hanging lamp depicted in theKeir Collection tile may further support a religious function, perhaps as a devotional element, but it may also derive from a funerary context. The lamp could relate to the Ayat al-nur (Qur 24:35), which begins, “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree.” The verse was subject to a mystical interpretation in al-Ghazali’s Mishkat al-anwar (Niche of lights, A.D. 1111), and the broad dissemination of that text fostered the widespread use of the lamp motif in the twelfth century (though its first appearance dates to the mid-eleventh). While this may explain the appearance of the lamp in the niche of mihrabs, the link is not interchangeable.
Finally, the lamp could also have an eschatological meaning connected with a hadith on martyrdom, which fostered the practices of donating or bringing lamps and oil in funerary contexts. The formula nawwara Allahu qabrahu or hufrahu, or “May God enlighten his tomb,” may give an idea of the popular understanding of the lamp and explain its use in funerary contexts (the motif began to appear on Egyptian tombs in the twelfth century, as well as on many Persian funerary monuments).
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
1. For the Keir Collection tile, see Grube, Ernst J. Islamic Pottery of the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century in the Keir Collection. The Keir Collection. London, 1976, pp. 175–76, no. 123.
2. Fehérvári, Géza. “Tombstone or Mihrab? A Speculation.” In Ettinghausen, Richard, ed. Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1972, pp. 241–54; Khoury, Nuha N. N. “The Mihrab Image: Commemorative Themes in Medieval Islamic Architecture.” Muqarnas 9 (1992), pp. 11–28. The earliest known panels (9th century) are from Mosul and Egypt; all are tombstones. Of the Iranian examples, many come from the Nishapur area and date to the tenth century; again, all are tombstones. More elaborate ones date to the twelfth century. Grube 1976 (reference in note 1), p. 176, suggests a funerary use for Keir Collection K.1.2014.296.
3. These examples date from the early Ghaznavid to the Ghurid period (mid-11th–early 12th century). See Rugiadi, Martina. Decorazione architettonica in marmo da Gaznı (Afghanistan). 2007. Bologna, 2012, pp. 1104–7; Giunta, Roberta. Les inscriptions funéraires de Gazni (IVe–IXe/Xe–XVe siècles). Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici, Series maior, 8. Naples, 2003.
4. Scalloped niches, twisted columns, and similarly shaped capitals are not unknown in Iran; see a comparable panel, retrieved in Hamadan, now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran (3899). It bears an epitaph with the date A.H. 524/ A.D. 1131.
5. A close comparison is the Hamadan panel cited in note 4 above.
6. The existence of hanging lamps on eleventh-century panels with niche designs retrieved in Ghazni, likely deriving from mosques, suggests that the link between the hanging lamp and Ayat al-nur developed within a preexisting, favorable cultural context (Rugiadi 2012[reference in note 3 above]). The lamp would recall the light invoked by the verse; as on earlier mihrabs it occurred with other images, such as stars or shiny medallions (Flood, Finbarr B[arry]. “Light in Stone: The Commemoration of the Prophet in Umayyad Architecture.” In Bayt al-Maqdis Part Two: Jerusalem and Early Islam, edited by Jeremy Johns, pp. 311–59. Oxford Studies in Islamic Art, 9. Oxford, 2000; Flood, Finbarr Barry. The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture. Islamic History and Civilization, Studies and Texts, 33. Leiden, 2001, pp. 15–56).
7. Today scholars mostly agree that in Islamic contexts not all depictions of arches with hanging lamps link directly to the mihrab; the assumption that lamps are always connected to the Ayat al-nurhas also been widely discussed. For a different opinion, see Baer, Eva. “Jeweled Ceramics from Medieval Islam: A Note on the Ambiguity of Islamic Ornament.” Muqarnas 6 (1989), p. 95. See also Papadopoulo, Alexandre, ed. Le mihrab dans l’architecture et la religion musulmanes: Actes du colloque international tenu à Paris en mai 1980. Leiden, 1988.
8. Khoury 1992 (reference in note 2 above), pp. 18–21 has explored the reasons for the emergence of the lamp image in funerary contexts. Evidence from Ghazni suggests that, at least in Ghazni, starting at the latest in the early twelfth century, funerary iconography borrowed the lamp motif already found in religious contexts and employed it as a visual alternative to the formula nawwara Allahu qabrahu (Rugiadi 2012 [reference in note 3 above]).
Inscription: Inscribed in Arabic in kufic inside the niche: له كفوا احد/ فسيكفيكهم / الله وهو السميع / العليم Equal to Him is not anyone (Qur’an 112:4). So God will guard you against them, and He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing (2:137).
Theodore M. Davis, New York (by 1914–d. 1915; bequeathed to MMA)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 164.
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 163, pp. 258-259, ill. p. 258 (color).