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.
This tabouret into which spheroconical vessels may have been fitted for presentation might relate to the consumption of beverages. 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 patternsprevailed in Greater Syria. Their diffusion and variety point to a large number of production centers, despite the relative lack of attested evidence of manufacture.
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), 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. Researchers are now oriented toward ascribing different functions to vessels based on their material, shape, or decoration, although a comprehensive investigation that incorporates the context of retrieval, chronology, and material analysis is still needed.
Glass and luster examples 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 are often associated with explosives or fire and are often, but not exclusively, found in castles.
This triangular tabouret appears to be a variation of the more common six-sided or rectangular ones, which may or may not have circular openings. Many such examples were excavated in Greater Syria, for example, at Hama, Raqqa, and Harran. As with most coeval stonepaste objects, they are usually attributed exclusively to Raqqa, although stonepaste production was actually more widespread in the twelfth century. 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). It is therefore conceivable that, in Syria, beverages were contained within sphero conical 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]
Inscription: (Arabic): Continuous 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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