Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Biconical Bead with Scrolls

Object Name:
11th century
Made in Egypt or Syria
Gold; filigree and granulation
2 x 3/4 in. (5.1 x 1.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah Gift, in memory of Richard Ettinghausen, 1980
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 454
This bead and bead 1980.457 feature superb patterns of scrolling vines whose bifurcations elegantly extend the design to fit the required space. The patterns recall those of the beveled style of the ninth century, although these possess clearer lines, perhaps owing to the medium.
Beads (1980.456, .457) and pendant (30.95.37)
Among the luxury arts that flourished under the Fatimid caliphs, gold jewelry stands out for its innovation and complexity. According to literary sources, prodigious amounts of such jewelry were manufactured for both royal and patrician patrons; most of these items were later melted down for currency or refashioned into newer pieces. Gold jewelry elements of the Fatimid period share several distinct characteristics, including box construction rings for stringing, filigree openwork with S-curve decoration, and, at least until the later period, granulation. The three pieces here—two beads and a pendant—demonstrate all these characteristics.
Both beads exemplify the distinctive Fatimid tradition of filigree openwork with granulation. The biconical bead (1980.456) is divided into five sections by strips decorated with granulation along the body, creating an allover design of scrolls and S-curves. A nearly identical bead is found in the Khalili Collection, London.[1] The spherical bead (no. 1980.457) is composed of two hemispheres of curling scrolls that form heart-shaped units. Two eleventh-century gold rings from Fatimid Egypt in the Khalili Collection bear the same scrolled-heart motif on the bezels, shanks, and sides; this motif can also be seen in a drawing of a woman in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, dating from the Fatimid period.[2]
Practically all the published Fatimid beads are independent, unattached to any larger piece of jewelry, but one exception shows how these beads might have been incorporated into a larger jewelry setting. A necklace in the collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority, part of a hoard excavated at Caesarea, consists of several beads, the most important of which are one biconical and two spherical beads that form the centerpiece of the necklace. All three are constructed of openwork filigree and decorated with granulation.[3] Because the necklace had been preserved in a vessel with other objects, it remained intact and presumably in its original form.
The pendant (no. 30.95.37) employs the typical Fatimid box construction and filigree technique, using straight and twisted gold wire. The points of the crescent terminate in a turquoise bead, and several loops around its perimeter suggest that a string of gems originally embellished the border. At the center, a pair of confronted birds is depicted in polychrome cloisonné enamel, a technique more closely associated with Byzantine production in Constantinople than with the eastern Mediterranean during the Fatimid period. However, enamel work (known in the medieval Arabic literature as mina) clearly had appeal in Fatimid Egypt as well. One eleventh-century source mentions a gift from a Byzantine king to the Fatimid court that included five bracelets and three saddles, all encrusted with polychrome enamel.[4] Another source includes jewelry with enameled elements in trousseau lists.[5] The cloisonne enamel inserts on this pendant may have been purchased ready-made, perhaps imported from the Byzantine world, and then incorporated into the locally made gold setting, a theory supported by the construction of the setting and the apparent use of adhesive to fix the enameled plaque in place.[6] A similar polychrome-enameled crescent medallion, which was excavated at Fustat, is in the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. It, too, bears a confronted-bird motif.[7]
Ellen Kelley and Karin Zonis in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Another biconical bead is in the collection of the L. A. Mayer Institute for Islamic Art, Jerusalem, but it is not openwork. Rather, it is made of a flat sheet in the form of two attached cones, with decoration in wire filigree possibly covered by granulation (Early Islamic Jewellery. Exhibition, L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art, Jerusalem. Catalogue by Rachel Hasson. Jerusalem, 1987, p. 89, no. 119). The National Museum of Damascus has a necklace composed of gold beads, both spherical and biconical, along with pearls and other round beads (see Amsterdam 1999–2000, Earthly Beauty, Heavenly Art: Art of Islam. Exhibition, De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam. Catalogue by Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, John Vrieze, and others. Amsterdam, 1999, p. 272, no. 266).
2. Amsterdam 1999–2000, p. 268, nos. 257, 258.(see footnote 1) For the drawing, see Rosen-Ayalon, Myriam. "The Islamic Jewellery from Ashkelon." In Jewellery and Goldsmithing in the Islamic World: International Symposium, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1987, edited by Na‘ama Brosh, pp. 9–19. [Jerusalem], 1991, p. 15.
3. Weyl, Martin, et al. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. London, 1995, p. 90.
4. al-Qaddumi, Ghada al-Hijjawi, ed. and trans. Book of Gifts and Rarities (Kitab al-Hadaya wa al-Tuhaf): Selections Compiled in the Fifteenth Century from an Eleventh-Century Manuscript on Gifts and Treasures. Cambridge, Mass., 1996, pp. 113 – 14, and see also note on p. 302 explaining the translation of the term dusut as "bracelet" rather than "chest" (cf. [al-]Qaddumi, Ghada al-Hijjawi. "A Medieval Islamic Book of Gifts and Treasures: Translation, Annotation, and Commentary on the ‘Kitab al-Hadaya wa al-Tuhaf.’" Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1990, p. 90, cited in an essay on this pendant by Marilyn Jenkins in Evans and Wixom 1997
5. Goitein, S[olomon] D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Vol. 4, Daily Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983, pp. 150-226.
6. Evans and Wixom 1997, p. 421. Other enameled pieces of the period bearing inscriptions correctly rendered in Arabic suggest that Fatimid jewelers eventually adopted this technique; see Gonzalez, Valerie. "Pratique d’une technique d’art Byzantine chez les Fatimides: L’emaillerie sur metal." In L’Égypte fatimide, son art et son histoire: Actes du colloque organizé à Paris les 28, 29 et 30 mai 1998, edited by Marianne Barrucand, pp. 197–217, pl. 10. Paris, 1999..
7. O’Kane 2006, p. 61.
[ Art Market, Jerusalem, ca. 1977–78; sold to Content]; [ Derek Content, Israel, from ca. 1978; sold to Khakili]; [ Khalili Gallery, London, until 1980; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament Part II: Vegetal Patterns," September 10, 1998–January 10, 1999, no catalogue.

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 38 (1980–1981). p. 17, ill. (b/w).

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn, and Manuel Keene. Islamic Jewelry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1983. no. 51d, p. 88, ill. (color).

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 28, ill. fig. 16 (color).

de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 314, ill. fig. 8 (color).

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. pp. 420-421.

O'Kane, Bernard. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo. Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2006. p. 61.

Carboni, Stefano. "The Arts of the Fatimid Period at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Ismaili (2008). p. 10, ill. fig. 17 (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. 99, pp. 151-152, ill. p. 151 (color).

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