This capital, carved of soft alabaster, demonstrates a vegetal style of the early Abbasid period. The classical curled leaf forms are representative of a traditionally decorated capital which later gave way to the emergence of the distinctive Beveled style form.
This capital probably comes from the site of Raqqa on the middle Euphrates in Syria. The Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–75) built a new settlement, al-Rafiqa, alongside the antique city of Raqqa in 772, but it was twenty-four years later that the new city reached its apogee, when Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809) established his caliphal residence there, spurring a huge building initiative. Among the remains of more than twenty palatial complexes, nineteenth-century visitors found similar capitals and, more recently, excavators have recovered panels of carved stucco bearing related designs. Several comparable capitals now dispersed in various collections reportedly originated from this site as well. This evidence, together with the ornate design and refined workmanship of the carving, suggests that the capital was created for a monumental building such as a palace or mosque.
The alabaster capitals in this group probably belong to the period of Harun al-Rashid’s residence in Raqqa between 795 and 808. Despite this narrow time range, the capitals vary widely in style. Some, like this example, are inspired by a type of vegetal ornament found in Late Antique architectural decoration at Palmyra, situated about seventy-five miles (120 km) south of Raqqa. Its form is distantly reminiscent of acanthus capitals, but the leaf motifs are less three-dimensional than their classical antecedents, and the foliate elements are more stylized. Around all four sides the design consists of two registers of half palmettes within a symmetrical scroll pattern filled with small trefoil sprigs. In the abacus zone atop the capital, paired winglike palmettes with blossoms adorn two of the sides, and vegetal scrolls encircle rows of blossoms on the other two. Prominent acanthus-leaf bosses articulate the four corners. Other alabaster capitals in this group, among them a contemporaneous example at the Metropolitan Museum and another in the David Collection, Copenhagen, display a beveled style associated with stucco carvings from the Abbasid palaces at Samarra built about thirty years later. These capitals and the related wall decoration suggest, as has been argued, that the "Samarra" stucco styles developed in Syria.
Ellen Kenney in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. For an overview of these developments, see Heidemann, Stefan. "Die Geschichte von ar-Raqqa/ar-Rafiqa—ein Uberblick." In Heidemann and Becker, eds. 2003, pp. 9–56, 259–76.
2. Sarre and Herzfeld 1911–20, vol. 2, p. 352, fig. 321; vol. 4, pl. 140. Another similar capital is reproduced in Heidemann and Becker, eds. 2003, p. 275, pl. 17.2, below, and in situ carved stucco panels with related designs are illustrated in Daiber and Becker, eds. 2004, pls. 40, 41, and 73.
3. T he Metropolitan Museum holds two related capitals (acc. nos. 36.68.1, 36.68.2). See Dimand 1936, p. 155. A nearly identical alabaster capital is in the collection of the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (no. I. 2195), and another is published in Kühnel, Ernst. Die Sammlung türkischer und islamischer Kunst im Tschinili Köschk. Meisterwerke der archaologischen Museen in Istanbul, vol. 3. Berlin and Leipzig,1938. pl. 5, upper left; related examples include two in the David Collection, Copenhagen: nos. 35/1986 (illustrated in Folsach 2001, p. 242, no. 384), and 2/2001 (published in: Cosmophilia:Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen. Exhibition, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College; Alfred and David Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. Catalogue by Sheila S. Blair, Jonathan M. Bloom, and others. Chestnut Hill, Mass., 2006. p. 156, no. 81).
4. Dimand 1936, p. 157.
5. For a discussion of parallels between the architectural ornament at these two sites, see Meinecke, Michael, and Andreas Schmidt-Colinet. "Palmyra und die frühislamische Architekturdekoration von Raqqa." In Syrien von den Aposteln zu den Kalifen, edited by Erwin M. Ruprechtsberger, pp. 352 – 59. Linz, 1993. Also Meinecke, Michael "‘Abbasidische Stuckdekorationen aus ar-Raqqa." In Rezeption in der islamischen Kunst: Bamberger Symposium vom 26.6–28.6.1992, edited by Barbara Finster, Greta Fragner, and Herta Hafenrichter, pp. 247–67, pls. 32–34. Beiruter Texte und Studien, 61. Stuttgart, 1999.
6. Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 36.68.1); David Collection, Copenhagen (no. 2/2001). See note 3 above.
7. Meinecke, Michael. "‘From Mschatta to Samarra’: The Architecture of ar-Raqqa and Its Decoration." In Colloque international d’archéologie islamique, IFAO, Le Caire, 3–7 février 1993, edited by Roland–Pierre Gayraud, pp. 141–48. Cairo, 1998. See also Haase, Claus-Peter. "The Development of Stucco Decoration in Northern Syria of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries and the Bevelled Style of Samarra." In Facts and Artefacts, Art in the Islamic World: Festschrift for Jens Kröger on His 65th Birthday, edited by Annette Hagedorn and Avinoam Shalem, pp. 439–60. Leiden and Boston, 2007.
[ Eustache de Lorey, Paris, until 1936; sold to MMA]
Sarre, Friedrich Dr, and Ernst Herzfeld. Archäologische reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-gebiet. Forschungen zur islamischen Kunst, Vol. 2. Berlin, 1920.
Sarre, Friedrich Dr, and Ernst Herzfeld. Archäologische reise im Euphrat- und Tigris-gebiet. Forschungen zur islamischen Kunst, Vol. 4. Berlin, 1920.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 86, ill. fig. 51 (b/w).
Heidemann, Stefan, and Andrea Becker, ed. Raqqa II: Die Islamische Stadt. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2003.
Becker, Andrea, and Verena Daiber, ed. Raqqa III: Baudenmäler und Paläste I. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2004.
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. 20, p. 42, ill. p. 42 (color).
Von Folsach, Kjeld. Art from the World of Islam in the David Collection. Copenhagen, 2011.