Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Inkwell with Zodiac Signs

Object Name:
early 13th century
Attributed to probably Iran
Brass; cast, inlaid with silver, copper, and black compound
H. 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm) H. w/o lid: 3 5/8 in. (9.2 cm) Diam. 4 9/16 in. (11.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959
Accession Number:
59.69.2a, b
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 453
One of the innovations of the Khurasani metalworkers is the development of animated inscriptions, in which parts of letters are transformed into animal or human figures. Here, the tall letters of the inscription on the lid are embellished with human heads. The use of animated inscriptions traveled westward, appearing on metalwork produced in western Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but was never adopted in other media. The body of the inkwell is decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Remarkably well preserved, this inkwell is a fine example of the elaborate embellishment applied to utilitarian objects in the medieval Islamic world. Calligraphic tools and implements were particularly ornate, often made of brass or other copper alloys and decorated with elaborate openwork or inlaid designs. It bears a rich decorative program of benedictory Arabic inscriptions in animated naskhi script, animal motifs, and zodiac signs. The body is divided into three registers; the middle one is the widest and is decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac inscribed in interlocked star-shaped medallions. Above and below this wide middle band run two thinner registers with the secondary design of animals set against a background of scrolling vines. The motif of running animals is mirrored on the lid, despite the fact that the base and lid originally belonged to separate objects.

Cylindrical inkwells similar to this one were produced in Greater Iran during the eleventh century under the Seljuq dynasty and continued to be produced in Iran through the thirteenth century. The popularity and often lavish ornamentation of inkwells in this period speak to the cultural importance attached to the art of writing. The choice of astrological signs as the primary decorative theme also reflects contemporary taste, and similar designs can be seen on numerous examples in the Metropolitan Museum and other collections. First introduced into the Islamic world through Greek texts, the art of astrology was considered integral to the science of astronomy. The depiction of the zodiac on precious objects such tions in the medieval Islamic world. Moreover, the presence of such imagery on these objects was thought to invest them with cosmological and talismanic properties, thereby placing their owners under the auspicious influence of the stars.

Francesca Leoni (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Inscription: Arabic, in Kufic script;
Translation by Yassir al-Tabba (1978):
-lid: "Continuing glory, increasing prosperity, secure life, and good fortune";
-top: "Glory, prosperity, dominion, dominion ... ".

In Naskhi script:
On the lid:
العز الدائم/ و الاقبال ا/لزائدو العمر ام/م السالم و الجد
العز وا/ لاقبال/ و الدولـ/ـة و الد/ واله واا/

Charles Mège, Paris(by 1903); [ Brimo de Laroussilhe, Paris, until 1959; sold to MMA]
Paris. Musée des Arts Décoratifs. "Exposition des Arts Muselmans," 1903, pl. XX.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Calligraphy West of China," March 15, 1972–May 7, 1972, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4, 1997–August 31, 1997, no. 13.

New York. Forbes Galleries. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," September 22, 2008–December 31, 2008, p. 117.

Chicago. Field Museum of Natural History. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," February 13, 2009–June 14, 2009, p. 117.

Paris. Institut du Monde Arabe. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," April 19, 2010–July 25, 2010, p. 117.

Migeon, Gaston. Exposition des Arts Musulmans au Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Paris: E. Levy, 1903. ill. pl. XX.

Baer, Eva. "An Islamic inkwell in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. pp. 202-204, ill. figs.6-10a,13-14, B/w illustrations of inkwell and details.

Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 48 (b/w).

Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983. p. 79, ill. fig. 59 (b/w).

Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: The Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 12, pp. 30-31, ill. pp. 31-32 (b/w).

Baer, Eva. Islamic Ornament. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. p. 118, ill. fig. 131 (b/w).

Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1250. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. p. 169, ill. fig. 259 (b/w).

Price, Judith. "Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization." In Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry. Philadelphia; London, 2008. p. 117, ill. (color).

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. 86, pp. 88, 131, ill. p. 131 (color).

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