Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Tabouret with Winged Griffins and Benedictions

Object Name:
12th century
Made in Syria
Earthenware; molded, modeled, glazed in turquoise
H. 8 1/8 in. (20.6 cm) W. 11 7/8 in. (30.2 cm) D. 10 in. (25.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Henry G. Leberthon Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. Wallace Chauncey, 1957
Accession Number:
Not on view
The holes in this tabouret held vessels, perhaps of the spheroconical type.

Two Sphericonical Vessels (al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait LNS 903 C and Victoria and Albert Museum C365-1921), a Tabouret (MMA 57.61.13) and a Star-Shaped Tile (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge C443-1991)

The two peculiarly shaped vessels (Kuwait LNS 903C and V&A C365-1921) and the tabouret ((MMA 57.61.13) into which they may have been fitted for presentation might relate to the consumption of beverages. A depiction of a seated figure holding what appears to be one such vessel may be tentatively identified on the accompanying luster tile (Fitzwilliam Museum C443-1991); if this were indeed the case, it would represent a variation of the round elements—fruits or sweets—that so frequently appear in banqueting images and other scenes meant to evoke the qualities of courtly life.[2]

The function of both spheroconical vessels and tabourets has long been debated. Spheroconical vessels made of earthenware are well known from archaeological contexts of the tenth to fourteenth century far beyond the Iranian and Syrian regions, in an area spanning Russia to Egypt to Kenya, on the east coast of Africa. Apart from their shape, their singularity lies in an extremely hard ceramic body obtained by a high-temperature firing, which has a vitrifying effect that partially turns the clay into stoneware. Also exceptional are the thickness of their walls and the single small hole at the top. The complexity of their interpretation is compounded by the occurrence of a variety of both glazed and unglazed, plain and decorated examples, as well as objects of the same shape but made of materials such as glass. In the eleventh to fourteenth century, unglazed vessels, either plain or with stamped motifs, predominated in Central Asia and Iran, while glazed ones with scaled patterns (as in the V&A vessel) prevailed in Greater Syria.[3] Their diffusion and variety point to a large number of production centers, despite the relative lack of attested evidence of manufacture.[4]

Absent explicit mentions of these objects in the textual sources, scholars have to rely on varied interpretations of problematic evidence, such as an illustration in the Daqa’iq al-haqa’iq (cat. 130 in this volume), a compendium of texts related to astrology, astronomy, magic, and talismans.[5] In it, a bearded, turbaned man riding a bird—a personification of the angel of the Third Mansion of the Moon—holds a spheroconical vessel seemingly of the unglazed type. A stick protruding from the hole at top may function as a stopper, which confirms the vessel’s use as a container but not the nature of its contents. It is unclear whether it relates to the straw fan (perhaps used to stoke a fire) also held by the angel.

Among the more frequently recurring hypotheses with regard to these vessels is that they were aeolipiles (devices used to fan fires through the exhalation of steam); containers for mercury (employed in various alchemical and medical preparations, as well as to make pigments) or other potentially hazardous or precious substances, including pyrite, perfume, or ink; plumb bobs; or military or Greek fire grenades. A convincing hypothesis, based on a large number of literary sources and on a few objects inscribed with exhortations to drink to good health,
associates a group of spheroconical vessels with the terms fuqqa‘, or kaz al-fuqqa‘ in the literature, which were containers for drinking fizzy fermented drinks.[6] Indeed, there is sufficient evidence to substantiate most of the aforementioned hypotheses, though none provides a definitive answer for the group as a whole.[7] Researchers are now oriented toward ascribing different functions to vessels based on their material, shape, or decoration,[8] although a comprehensive investigation that incorporates the context of retrieval, chronology, and material analysis is still needed.

Glass and luster examples such as the Kuwait vessel may well have been used to hold beverages, perfumes, or alembics, but evidence to
support this idea is, in fact, scarce. The few such vessels with inscriptions related to drinking, all from the Iranian regions and with little incised or stamped decoration, are of the unglazed type, and they are spherical rather than spheroconical in shape. In the Syrian and Egyptian regions, by contrast, unglazed spheroconical vessels, most bearing a scaly pattern of decoration like the V&A (C365-1921) vessel, are often associated with explosives or fire and are often, but not exclusively, found in castles.[9] The luxurious luster-painting of the Kuwait vessel points toward an interpretation as a container for either beverages or precious liquids such as perfume.[10]

The triangular tabouret appears to be a variation of the more common six-sided or rectangular ones, which may or may not have circular openings.[11] Many such examples were excavated in Greater Syria, for example, at Hama, Raqqa, and Harran.[12] As with most coeval stonepaste objects, they are usually attributed exclusively to Raqqa, although stonepaste production was actually more widespread in the twelfth century (see cats. 108a–i in this volume).[13] That these low tables were used to carry containers of liquids can be inferred from miniature paintings in Maqamat manuscripts of the thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries. Although none features spheroconical vessels, one does depict a large jar with a tapering body that seems to have been inserted into a tabouret, while others clearly show jars whose points peek out the bottom of the tabouret (for instance, in the Saint Petersburg Maqamat).[14] It is therefore conceivable that, in Syria, beverages were contained within spheroconical vessels and served from tabourets, a theory further supported by the inscribed benedictions
wishing blessings to the owner and by the auspicious motif of two confronted winged griffins.

Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]


2. On a tile of strikingly similar design in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (C444-1911), the shape of the object is much less well defined and seems to depict a fruit.

3. Victoria and Albert Museum (C365-1921) was first published in Lane, Arthur. Early Islamic Pottery: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. Faber Monographs on Pottery and Porcelain. London, 1947, p. 27, pl. 36F.

4. Production is attested at Qanat Tepe in Nishapur (Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period. New York, [1973], pp. xxxii; group 12, nos. 113–17), Isfahan (wasters were found in the excavation of the masjid-i jami’, unpublished), Samarqand (Shishkina, G. V., and L. V. Pavchinskaja. “Les quartiers des potiers de Samarcande entre le IXe et le debut du XIIIe siècle,” and “La production ceramique de Samarcande du VIIIe au XIII siècle.” In Terres secrètes de Samarcande: Céramiques du VIIIe au XIIIe siècle. Exh. cat., Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Musée de Normandie, Caen; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, 1992–93. Paris, 1992, pp. 65, 69, 77, no. 17) and Ghazni (Fusaro, Agnese. “The Ceramic Corpus of Ghazni: New Research Study and Preliminary Results.” In New Data for the History of Ghazni in Afghanistan, edited by Michele Bernardini, Roberta Giunta, and Martina Rugiadi. Turnhout, forthcoming.)

5. Although the manuscript is dated to A.H. 670/A.D. 1272, this painting was possibly completed in a late stage of illustrations; Barrucand, Marianne. “The Miniatures of the Daqa’iq al-Haqa’iq (Bibliothèque Nationale Pers. 174): A Testimony to the Cultural Diversity of Medieval Anatolia.” Islamic Art 4 (1991), pp. 120–21, fig. 39) attributes it to approximately the mid-sixteenth century.

6. The most important references are in Ettinghausen, Richard. “The Uses of Sphero-Conical Vessels in the Muslim East.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24, no. 3 (July 1965), pp. 218–29. Reprinted in Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamic Art and Archaeology: Collected Papers. Edited by Myriam Rosen-Ayalon. Berlin, 1984, pp. 790–807; Rogers, J. M. “Aeolipiles Again.” In Forschungen zur Kunst Asiens in Memoriam Kurt Erdmann, 9. September 1901–30. September 1964, edited by Oktay Aslanapa and Rudolf Naumann, pp. 147–58. Istanbul, 1969; and Savage-Smith, Emilie. “Sphero-Conical Vessels: A Typology of Forms and Functions.” In Savage-Smith, Emilie, et al. Science, Tools and Magic. Pt. 2, Mundane Worlds. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, edited by Julian Raby, vol. 12, pt. 2. London
and Oxford, 1997, pp. 324–37. For the fuqqa’ hypothesis, see Ghouchani, A[bdullah], and C[hahryar] Adle. “A Sphero-Conical Vessel as Fuqqa‘a, or a Gourd for ‘Beer.’” Muqarnas 9 (1992), pp. 72–92.

7. As for the retrieval of remains of mercury in some of the vessels, this is not confirmed (Savage-Smith 1997 [note 6], p. 329). The interior of the vessels usually seems virtually unsoiled.

8. An attempt in this direction is Savage-Smith 1997 (note 6). A forthcoming special issue of Journal of Islamic Archaeology, edited by Stéphane Pradines, will be dedicated to spheroconical vessels.

9. For examples found in the Crusader citadel in Banias and for previous references, see Sharvit, Jacob. “The Sphero-Conical Vessels.” In Paneas, vol. 2, Small Finds and Other Studies, edited by V. Tzaferis and S. Israeli, pp. 101–12. Israel Antiquities Authority Reports, 38. Jerusalem, 2008; see also Prag, Kay. Excavations by K. M. Kenyon in Jerusalem, 1961–1967. Vol. 5, Discoveries in Hellenistic to Ottoman Jerusalem. Levant Supplementary Series, 7. Oxford, 2008, pp. 265–69, figs. 175(1–5), and Milwright, Marcus. The Fortress of the Raven: Karak in the Middle Islamic Period (1100–1650). Leiden, 2008, pp. 177–81. For the hypothesis that the vessels might be hand grenades, see (accessed January 27, 2016).

10. Its worn-out inscription may or may not refer to the work of a “Sadik” (Watson 2004 [note 1], p. 354, no. O.13).

11. Arte islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Exh. cat., Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City, 1994–95. Catalogue by Daniel Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, and others. Mexico City, 1994, pp. 132–33.

12. Graves, Margaret S. “The Aesthetics of Simulation: Architectural Mimicry on Medieval Ceramic Tabourets.” In Islamic Art, Architecture and Material Culture: New Perspectives, edited by Margaret Graves. Oxford, 2010, p. 71, with previous bibliography; an example of a rectangular tabouret is in the Metropolitan Museum (42.113.2).

13. Tonghini, Cristina. Qal‘at Ja‘bar Pottery: A Study of a Syrian Fortified Site of the Late 11th–14th Centuries. British Academy Monographs in Archaeology, 11. 1995. Oxford and New York, 1998, pp. 46–51, with previous bibliography; McPhillips, S[tephen] A. “Continuity and Innovation in Syrian Artisanal Traditions of the 9th to the 13th Centuries: The Ceramic Evidence from the Syrian-French
Citadel of Damascus Excavations.” Bulletin d’études orientales 61 (2012), pp. 447–74.

14. Graves 2010 (note 12), pp. 71–72 and fig. 12.
Inscription: Inscribed in Arabic in cursive on its three sides:
العز الدائم
Perpetual prosperity
Henry G. Leberthon, Hempstead, NY (until d. 1939; bequeathed to Mrs. Chauncey); Louise Ruxton Chauncey, New York (1939–57; gifted to MMA)
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte islamico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 44.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 63.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994-Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 44, pp. 132-133, ill. p. 133 (b/w).

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. 63, pp. 132-134, ill. p. 133 (color).

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