Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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Pyxis Depicting Standing Saints or Ecclesiastics and the Entry into Jerusalem with Christ Riding a Donkey

Object Name:
Box
Date:
mid- to late13th century
Geography:
Attributed to Syria
Medium:
Brass; hammered, engraved, inlaid with silver
Dimensions:
(a+b): H. 4 1/8 in. (10.5 cm) Diam. 4 1/16 in. (10.3 cm) Wt. 13.9 oz. (394.1 g)
Classification:
Metal
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1971
Accession Number:
1971.39a, b
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 454
During the course of the thirteenth century, luxurious inlaid brasses signed by al-Mawsili (from Mosul) artists or made in their style began to display a very particular iconography borrowing from Christian motifs, namely Gospel scenes, images related to the life of Christ, and standing figures of saints and ecclesiastics. These images appear alongside traditional Islamic themes that were popular in the Seljuq era, such as the courtly cycle and astrology. It is noteworthy that such Christian motifs were largely depicted with deliberate variations. The artists either did not entirely understand the iconography or they did not care much about the established canon. The juxtaposition of Christian and medieval Islamic themes suggests that these brasses were probably intended for specific communities, underscoring the complex multicultural milieu of the western Seljuq realm. Some may have been ordered by local Christian patrons, others as souvenirs for Crusader knights. Suitable for Muslim and Christian courts as prestigious diplomatic gifts or as luxurious export works, they reached rulers and elite individuals both within and beyond the Seljuq world, as far west as Europe.
Inlaid Brasses with Christian Iconograpy (Keir Collection K.1.2014.82, MMA 1971.39a, b, and Nasser D. Khalili Collection MTW 850)

During the course of the thirteenth century, luxurious inlaid brasses signed by al-Mawsili artists or redolent of their style began to display a very particular iconography borrowing from Christian motifs, namely Gospel scenes, images related to the life of Christ, and standing figures of saints and ecclesiastics. These images appear alongside traditional Islamic themes that were popular in the Seljuq era, such as the courtly cycle and astrology.[3] It is noteworthy that such Christian iconography was largely depicted with deliberate variations. The artists either did not entirely understand the iconography or they did not care much about the established canon. Scholars tend to associate these objects with Ayyubid Syria, but recent research on one of the masterworks of the group, the Freer canteen,[4] confirms that Mosul, where the al-Mawsili school emerged under Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, was likewise an important center of production. In any case, the juxtaposition of Christian and medieval Islamic themes suggests that these brasses were probably intended for very specific communities, underscoring the complex multicultural milieu of the western Seljuq realm.[5] Some may have been ordered by local Christian patrons, others as souvenirs for Crusader knights. Suitable for Muslim and Christian courts, as prestigious diplomatic gifts, or as luxurious export works, they reached rulers and elite individuals both within and beyond the Seljuq world, as far west as Europe.

The Keir Collection ewer, known as the Homberg ewer, belongs to the category of Syro-Jaziran inlaid ewers that were commonly used in combination with basins for washing hands at celebratory, religious, and ritual occasions.[6] Dated 1242, the ewer is the second of three known artifacts signed by the renowned al-Mawsili metalsmith al-Dhaki. The faceted form recalls the Blacas ewer (British Museum, London 1866,1229.61), made in Mosul, as does the characteristic sculptural rosette at the bottom, a brand mark of the early inlay masters, which together suggest that the Homberg ewer was made in Mosul as well.[7] Thus one may consider the Homberg ewer to be another dated
marker among the inlaid brasses of Jaziran provenance with Christian iconography. Owing to a modern restoration of the inlay, the ewer’s decorative program is difficult to read with clarity. In addition to courtly imagery, arranged in friezes with an enthroned ruler and attendants, a series of figures appears one per facet on the neck, while a beaded, column-less arcade with one figure standing beneath each plain-center arch runs above the foot. One of these figures (fig. 110 in this volume) relates to a painting in a Syriac manuscript (Orientabteilung, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin [MS Sachau 322]) and the scene of the Presentation at the Temple.[8] In the Homberg ewer the figure with outstretched arms carries a pair of pigeons or doves and represents Joseph, who in the Temple of Jerusalem offered the birds in sacrifice to the Lord.

Metropolitan Museum no. 1971.39a, b belongs to a group of at least three small cylindrical boxes with lids, or pyxides.[9] Deriving from ancient Greek ceramic prototypes, used mainly by women to hold cosmetics, trinkets, or jewelry, comparable vessels in metal and ivory (often referred to by the abbreviated form “pyx”) are used as liturgical receptacles in the Catholic, Old Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches to carry the Eucharist to those unable to receive the consecrated host in church. In the medieval Islamic world they were intended to hold ushnan, a vegetal-ash soda used to launder clothing.[10] Sophisticated examples such as this one might also have held aromatics, jewelry, or other more precious items.

Unlike comparable examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (320-1866), and the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (225), the surface decoration of this piece omits epigraphy.[11] Set against a background of dense arabesque foliage, a suite of eight interlacing trilobed arches dominates the design, each one containing a standing figure, except for one depicting the Entry into Jerusalem. Christ, riding a donkey, is accompanied by three pairs of figures: one below him, spreading garments; one behind him, holding branches; and one, angelic pair supporting a canopy above him. This latter detail compares with Islamic depictions of enthroned rulers.[12] Among the single standing figures, only the one opposite the Entry scene appears frontally, and the two figures flanking him draw further emphasis to him by turning their faces and censers to face him. This clearly significant individual, wearing a long cleft beard and a chasuble and holding a slanting cross in front of his body, has been identified as Saint Andrew.[13] Andrew was the patron saint not only of the See of Constantinople but also of an eponymous Crusader fraternity founded in the 1230s and based in Acre.[14] In this piece, his hair, divided in two equal halves and marked at the apex with a dot, is characteristic of depictions of Christian warriors or Crusaders in inlaid metalwork from the region, further confirming a Crusader connection.

Preserved on the lid of the pyxis, despite its reworking in the modern period, is an iconographically exceptional representation of the Virgin and Child: the Virgin sits on the ground, not on a throne, as one would expect from a Madonna. Her cross-legged position recalls depictions of Seljuq rulers, while her bound turban echoes the male headgear distinctive to the local Arab community in Syria and the Jazira. That Christian themes dominate the decorative program suggests with near certainty that the intended owner of the pyxis was Christian. However, the amalgam of Muslim and Christian iconographic traditions, executed in an Islamic medium against Islamic arabesque decoration, has led to a truly original result [15]

Nasser D. Khalili Collection no. MTW 850, also reminiscent of the al-Mawsili school, represents a Jaziro-Syrian version of a small group of strongboxes with combination locks made in both the eastern and western Seljuq lands.[16] The lavish inlay work is dominated by courtly motifs celebrating the sovereign: he appears as a falconer or lancer on horseback; enthroned with attendants; in the company of musicians and backgammon players; and feasting. The figures and scenes are structured hierarchically, with the ruler appearing larger than any other motif, in circular, quatrefoil, and polylobed medallions. These elements in combination with the fretwork are al-Mawsili characteristics. Noteworthy is the design on the sides of the box, in which an enthroned figure and his surrounding entourage are arranged into a sunlike pattern with the ruler at center. Together with the seated figures holding a crescent (personifications of the moon) and the sun disk on the
lid, the concentric arrangement equates the sovereign with the sun and reflects the ideation of his sublime power and control over the cosmos.

On the lower portions of the front and back of the box, at a smaller scale and almost in the shadow of the majestic Seljuq iconography above, are several standing Christian figures, typically enclosed in polylobed arches. On the front panel, below the riders at center, a man who likely represents Christ stands with his hands clasped. He wears a hooded mantle and holds a standing cross, a symbol of the Passion and Crucifixion. The bookstand to his left evokes the Gospels. Three cruciform motifs, one above and two flanking his head, form a larger cross with the body of Christ as its vertical axis—yet another allusion to the Crucifixion, but perhaps also to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[17] On the back panel at the center is a figure in the orante posture, an ancient Christian pose of prayer. Like the Christ figure, this individual wears a hooded mantle and occupies the central axial position. She is the Virgin Mary, who when not holding the Christ Child is often portrayed in prayer to her son.[18] The two standing figures on her side with the bookstand (and torch?) are probably the Old Testament prophets or saints who predicted her motherhood of Christ. While the exact iconography awaits further study, the references to the Passion are noteworthy, as it is not a common motif among inlaid Islamic brasses with Christian iconography.[19]

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

Footnotes:

3. The foundational study remains Baer, Eva. Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images. Studies and Sources in Islamic Art and Architecture, 4. Leiden, 1989, which discusses eighteen metal objects with Christian imagery, including Keir Collection K.1.2014.82 and MMA 1971.39a, b, but omitting Nasser D. Khalili Collection MTW 850. See also Katzenstein, Ranee A., and Glenn D. Lowry. “Christian Themes in Thirteenth-Century Islamic Metalwork.” Muqarnas 1 (1983), pp. 53–68; Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Art. Exh. cat., Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1985–86. Catalogue by Esin Atıl, W. T. Chase, and Paul L. Jett. Washington, D.C., 1985, pp. 124–46; Hoffman, Eva R. “The Beginnings of the Illustrated Arabic Book: An Intersection between Art and Scholarship.” Muqarnas 17 (2000), pp. 37–52; Auld, Sylvia. “Cross-currents and Coincidences: A Perspective on Ayyubid Metalwork.” In Ayyubid Jerusalem: The Holy City in Context, 1187–1250, edited by Robert Hillenbrand and Sylvia Auld, pp. 45–71. London, 2009. According to Rachel M. Ward (“Style versus Substance: The Christian Iconography on Two Vessels Made for the Ayyubid Sultan al-Salih Ayyub.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’Kane, pp. 314–15. Edinburgh, 2005) a twentieth object could be added to this corpus, for she interprets the scene on the Blacas ewer (British Museum, London 1866,1229.61) of a figure kissing the hand of an enthroned ruler with a beard and bare feet (fig. 39 in this volume) as Christ washing the feet of the Disciples.

4. On the Freer canteen, see Ecker, Heather, and Teresa Fitzherbert. “The Freer Canteen, Reconsidered.” Ars Orientalis 42 (2012), pp. 176–93. Ward 2005 (reference in note 3 above), p. 321, emphasizes that conclusions of attribution, patronage, and meaning should be reassessed individually.

5. For a broader perspective regarding Christian imagery and iconography and their interaction with the Muslim world, see Snelders, Bas. Identity and Christian-Muslim Interaction: Medieval Art of the Syrian Orthodox from the Mosul Area. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 198. Leuven and Walpole, Mass., 2010.

6. Examples include cats. 13b (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha [MW.466.2007]), 15 (British Museum, London [1866,1229.61]), and 68 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore [54.456]) in this volume. The curvilinear spout of the Homberg ewer ending with a dragon’s head and the lid, as well as the entire silver inlay, are modern replacements.

7. Raby, Julian. “The Principle of Parsimony and the Problem of the Mosul School of Metalwork.” In Porter, Venetia, and Mariam Rosser-Owen, eds. Metalwork and Material Culture in the Islamic World: Art, Craft and Text; Essays Presented to James W. Allan. London, 2012, pp. 23–37.

8. Baer, Eva. Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images. Studies and Sources in Islamic Art and Architecture, 4. Leiden, 1989, pp. 15–17, 36, pls. 121, 122.

9. Other examples are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (320–1866), and the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (225); see Baer 1989 (reference in note 8 above), pp. 7, 13–15. On the MMA pyxis, see also Ellen Kenny in Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011. Catalogue edited by Maryam D. Ekhtiar, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar. New York, 2011, pp. 152–53, no. 102; Stefano Carboni in L’orient de Saladin: L’art des Ayyoubides. Exh. cat., Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2001–2. Catalogue by Sophie Makariou and others. Paris, 2001, p. 114, no. 97; Stefano Carboni in The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843– 1261. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997. Catalogue by Helen C. Evans, William D. Wixom, and others. New York, 1997, pp. 426–27, no. 285.

10. Carboni in L’orient de Saladin: L’art des Ayyoubides. Exh. cat., Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2001–2. Catalogue by Sophie Makariou and others. Paris, 2001, p. 114, no. 97.

11. For the epigraphic content of these two boxes, see Baer 1989 (reference in note 8 above), p. 13.

12. See cats. 11 (David Collection, Copenhagen [D1/1990, Royal Library Cod. Arab. CLXVIII; fol. 2r]), and 69 (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha [MW.110.1999]) in this volume.

13. Baer 1989 (reference in note 8 above), p. 38.

14. For further literature, see Kenney in New York 2011 (reference in note 9 above), p. 153.

15. According to Carboni in Paris 2001–2 (reference in note 10 above), p. 114, no. 97, the iconography relates to Shi‘a images of ‘Ali and his sons al-Hasan and al-Husayn.

16. The lid has four dials, each with sixteen letters in abjad order and pointers that can still be turned, although the lock mechanism, originally on the inside of the lid, is now missing. This box was excluded from Baer 1989 (reference in note 8 above) but published
in Islamic Manuscripts, Miniatures, and Works of Art. Sale cat., Christie’s, London, October 10, 1989, sale IMAM-4166. London, 1989, lot 526; 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. 390–91, no. 344; Earthly Beauty, Heavenly Art: Art of Islam. Exh. cat., De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, 1999–2000. Catalogue by Mi[k]hail B. Piotrovsk[y], John Vrieze, and others. Amsterdam, 1999. Published in Dutch as Aardse schoonheid, hemelse kunst: Kunst van de Islam pp. 167–68, no. 122; Arts de l’Islam: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la collection Khalili. Exh. cat., Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2009–10. Catalogue by J. M. Rogers and others. Paris, 2009, pp. 96–97, no. 110. For an example from Iran and a discussion of this type of strongbox, see cat. 110 in this volume (David Collection, Copenhagen 1/1984).

17. At first glance the circular motifs recall the petaled rosettes that are common on medieval inlaid metalwork and appear on this box on the back side, where four of them flank the two representations of the moon.

18. Another common detail that Christ and the Virgin share is the little ridge at the top of the head, perhaps another religious symbol or attribute.

19. I am grateful to Helen C. Evans, Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art, Department of Medieval Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for her help deciphering the iconography.



This pyxis is one of a group of inlaid brass pieces, dated around the thirteenth century, that technically and stylistically belong to the Islamic metalwork tradition but are decorated with scenes related to the life of Christ, certain Christian saints, and ecclesiastical figures.[1] Most of these objects, including the present work, are anepigraphic and thus yield little documentary information. Their visual sources, patronage, attribution, and authorship have been discussed in several studies.[2] Scholars generally attribute most of them to Ayyubid Syria and concur that different examples from the group were made for a variety of reasons and patrons.[3] Some may have been ordered by local Christian patrons, others for crusader knights who wished for Holy Land souvenirs, and still others for Muslim patrons who wanted them as diplomatic gifts to crusader representatives or European potentates or even for their own appreciation.[4]
Here, eight trilobed arches contain figures against a background filled with tightly interwoven vegetal scrolls, which also decorate the interstices between the arches. One arch represents a compressed version of the Entry into Jerusalem, with Christ shown seated upon a donkey; two figures below the donkey spread garments while another couple behind it holds branches. At the apex of this vignette, two angels support a canopy over Christ.[5] The other arches contain single standing figures, and the lid represents a scene of the Madonna and Child. The absence in this decorative program of any of the geometric interlace, T- or Y-fret patterns, or plaited bands so frequently encountered in inlaid metalwork of the period is striking. The only exception occurs on the underside of the pyxis, where one small, central roundel bearing a six-pointed star composed of centrifugal Y-frets appears amid dense vegetal scrolls.
Even though the pyxis is missing most of the inlay that would have provided design details, the figures are unusually expressive in their gestures, poses, and sense of movement. The two to the right of the Entry scene both turn in the direction of Christ. To the left of that scene, a male extends his hands in supplication toward Christ, and a female twists in his direction as her feet face away. Only the figure positioned opposite the Entry scene stands frontally, while those flanking him signal his importance by turning in his direction. This personage has been tentatively identified as Saint Andrew on the basis of his forked beard, an attribute found in other representations of the apostle.[6] Since Andrew was the patron saint of an eponymous crusader fraternity founded in the 1230s and based in Acre, it is tempting to associate his representation here with crusader patronage.[7] The iconography of the Madonna and Child scene is especially intriguing. Whereas the other figures are haloed, the Christ Child is not, the Madonna’s halo is lobed in an atypical fashion, and her headgear—a turban more suitable to a man than to a woman—is curious.[8] Unlike most eastern Madonnas, she sits on the ground, not a throne.[9] Here again, gesture performs an important role: the mother tilts her head toward the infant, who reaches up to her face tenderly.
Ellen Kenney in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Footnotes:
1. Eva Baer surveyed eighteen of these objects (Baer 1989).
2. Katzenstein and Lowry 1983; Washington, D.C. 1985–86, pp. 124–46; Baer 1989, pp. 41–49; Ward 1993, pp. 84–85; Hoffman, Eva R. "Christian-Islamic Encounters on Thirteenth-Century Ayyubid Metalwork: Local Culture, Authenticity, and Memory." Gesta 43, no. 2 (2004), pp. 129 – 42; Ward, Rachel M. "Style versus Substance : The Christian Iconography on Two Vessels Made for the Ayyabid Sultan al-Sahik Ayyub." In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’Kane, pp. 309–24. Edinburgh, 2005; Auld, Sylvia. "Cross-currents and Coincidences: A Perspective on Ayyubid Metalwork." In Ayyubid Jerusalem: The Holy City in Context, 1187–1250, edited by Robert Hillenbrand and Sylvia Auld, pp. 45–71. London, 2009.
3. Indeed, as Rachel Ward recently concluded, "The provenance, patronage and meaning of each . . . should be reassessed individually" (Ward 2005 [footnote 2], p. 321). For a broader perspective on the question of Christian imagery and iconographic intent, see Snelders, Bas. Identity and Christian-Muslim Interaction: Medieval Art of the Syrian Orthodox from the Mosul Area. Leiden,2010.
4. Stefano Carboni in Evans and Wixom 1997, p. 427, no. 285.
5. Auld 2009 (see footnote 2), p. 50.
6. Baer 1989, p. 38.
7. On the Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, see Setton, Kenneth M., et al. A History of the Crusades. Vol. 5, The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. Edited by Norman P. Zacour and Harry W. Hazard. Madison, Wisc., 1985, pp. 167–68. On the other hand, Saint Andrew is also connected with the foundation of the See of Constantinople, and it is conceivable that his representation here relates to that role.
8. For further discussion of the unusual iconography of the lid, see the catalogue entry by Carboni in Evans and Wixom 1997, pp. 426–27, no. 285. The lid displays evidence of reworking.
9. Auld observes that this was a convention of European representations of the Madonna only from the fourteenth century and later (Auld 2009, (see footnote 2) p. 68).
Hagop Kevorkian, New York (until d. 1962); Kevorkian Foundation, New York (1962–70; its sale, Sotheby's, London,December 8, 1970, no. 73, to MMA)
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 55.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Glory of Byzantium," March 11–July 6, 1997, no. 285.

Medford, MA. Tufts University Art Gallery. "Global Flows," September 6, 2012–November 18, 2012, no catalogue.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 168b.

Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 139, ill. (b/w).

"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 55, pp. 144-145, ill. p. 145 (b/w).

Katzenstein, Ranee A., and Glenn D. Lowry. "Christian Themes in Thirteenth-Century Islamic Metalwork." Muqarnas vol. 1 (1983). pp. 54, 58, ill. pl. 8 (b/w).

Baer, Eva. Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images. Studies in Islamic Art and Architecture, 0921-0326, Vol. 4. New York: E. J. Brill, 1989. ill. figs. 37-44, (b/w).

Ward, Rachel. Islamic Metalwork. London: British Museum Press, 1993. pp. 84-85.

Evans, Helen, and William D. Wixom, ed. "Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A.D. 843–1261." In The Glory of Byzantium. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 285, pp. 426-427, ill. p. 427 (b/w).

Orient de Saladin : L'Art des Ayyoubides. Paris: Gallimard, 2001. no. 97, p. 114, 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. 102, pp. 138, 152-153, ill. p. 153 (color).

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. 168b, pp. 265-267, ill. p. 266 (color), fig. 111 (detail).



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