Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Pen Box

Object Name:
Pen box
13th century
Attributed to Northern Iraq or Western Iran, Al-Jazira
Brass; engraved, incised, and inlaid with silver
Box closed: H. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm) W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm) D. 1 11/16 in. (4.3 cm) Wt, 13.3 oz. (377.1 g) Box opened: H. 4 7/8 in. (12.4 cm) W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm) D. 1 3/16 in. (3 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Joseph W. Drexel, 1889
Accession Number:
Not on view
Muslim metalworkers produced large numbers of pen boxes, many of which were richly decorated with inlays of gold, silver, and copper. A typical medieval Islamic calligrapher's pen box is an elongated rectangular object with rounded corners, about ten inches long, three inches wide, and two inches tall. In its simple construction, it is composed of a main body and a lid with two hinges along one of the long sides and a clasp on the opposite side. The interior includes a receptacle to hold the inkwell in one corner while the remaining space is reserved for a variety of reed pens and penknives. The present pen box shows a typical overall silver-inlaid decoration combining calligraphic, vegetal, and figural designs both on the exterior and the interior surfaces. It is, however, unique in that the main field on the lid is occupied by three roundels depicting the Moon flanked by the planets Jupiter and Venus in the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Libra, respectively. The box therefore also had an astrological significance, being most likely associated with the owner's birth, whereas the moon took on a talismanic relevance, since its image symbolically protected the entire object.
Inscription: Arabic, naskh script, underside and top of lid; lid, top: "Glory, victory, prosperity, wealth, generosity, glory, virtues, and Hatim* - like generosity... "; lid, bottom: "And on your side the Arabs and Persians ... ... ". (Yassir al-Tabba).

*Hatim at-TA'I was an Arab man whose excessive generosity became a legend.
Joseph W. Drexel, New York (until d. 1888); his widow, Lucy Wharton Drexel(1888–89; gifted to Museum in Joseph Drexel's name)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4, 1997–August 31, 1997, no. 6.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament Part I: Calligraphy," February 26, 1998–June 28, 1998, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.

Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). p. 19, ill. fig. 23a (b/w).

Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: The Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 6, pp. 18-19, ill. (b/w).

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