Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Writing Box

Object Name:
Writing box
late 16th–early 17th century
Made in India or Pakistan, Gujarat or Sind
Wood; veneered with ebony, inlaid with ivory and bone (partially stained), brass (sadeli technique)
H. 13 1/2 in. (34.3 cm) W. 20 7/8 in. (53 cm) D. 5 1/8 in. (13 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Pat and John Rosenwald Gift, 2004
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 463
The surfaces of this writing box are veneered with ebony and inlaid with ivory and sadeli, a type of micromosaic in use since antiquity. It is associated with the eastern Mediterranean region, from where it spread to Iran and India. This technique consists of binding together sections of diverse materials (tin, wood, ivory, bone, etc.), which are sliced transversally and formed into thin sheets of repeating patterns that are adhered to a wooden support.

The design on this ebony-veneered box, which is richly inlaid with ivory, bone, and sadeli (micromosaic), achieves a pleasing balance between vegetal vine forms in the borders and interspersed floral medallions in the middle ground; its stately geometric patterns include a central star motif, which dominates the main composition. The nature of the decoration, particularly the strong geometric forms, arabesques, and sadeli technique, links the box to the larger Islamic world in terms of style and taste, while also exemplifying western India’s accomplished tradition of luxury furniture making, which was often oriented, in the late sixteenth century, toward export to Europe or western Asia. Although its interior is no longer entirely original, the piece is likely to have functioned as a writing box and would presumably have had a number of sections or divisions within to contain various tools and papers.

The sadeli technique, which has been in use since antiquity, is particularly associated with the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, from where it spread to Iran and India. The method consists of gluing together geometrically shaped rods or thin strips of diverse materials (such as tin, wood, ivory, horn, and brass), slicing the bundles transversely into thin sheets of repeating patterns, and adhering the sheets to a wooden support. Predating sadeli in western India was an earlier method of inlaying mother-of-pearl in wooden objects, which, in the sixteenth century, were destined primarily for the Turkish market.

This box is part of a larger group of related inlaid furniture, some examples of which may have been made in the same workshop. A cabinet on a table stand in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, regarded as one of the most important works of the type, shows similar radiating-star patterns in sadeli on its inner doors and drawers, combined with an elaborate figural and vegetal decorative scheme on its outer surfaces.[1] A cabinet in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, contains a similar star pattern in sadeli in its inner section.[2] In these examples, however, the medallion-based patterns in sadeli are largely restricted to the interiors (probably because of the fragility of the technique), with the outer sections covered instead in figures and flowering plants. Here, in contrast, the medallion style and technique have been elevated to the main surface, and the box thus stands apart from the other pieces in its more archaic and Islamic character.

Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. Jaffer, Amin. Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet Maker. London, 2002, pp. 30–32, no. 8; also, pp. 20–21, no. 4, illustrates a reversible game board with a similar combination of sadeli and curving vine forms on the reverse, although, in that case, the areas of sadeli are more restrained and less varied.

2. La route des Indes: Les Indes et l’Europe, échanges artistiques et héritage commun, 1650–1850. Exhibition, Musée des arts décoratifs à Bordeaux; Musée d’Aquitaine de la ville de Bordeaux. Catalogue by Thierry-Nicolas Tchkaloff and others. Paris, 1998, pp. 10–11, 126, no. 83.
Private collection, Scotland (by descent from at least 1900–2003); Christie's, South Kensington, October 17, 2003, no. 143, to McInerney; [ Terence McInerney, New York, 2003–4; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Making the Invisible Visible," April 2, 2013–August 4, 2013, no catalogue.

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. p. 268, pp. 341, 379-380, ill. p. 379 (color).

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