This panel, carved from a single piece of ivory in a twice-repeating pattern, once adorned the side of a rectangular casket. The complexity of its decoration as well as the attention to details, such as the eyes of humans and animals, which were drilled and filled with minute quartz stones, demonstrate the refinement and the accomplishment of the caliphal ivory-carving workshop.
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Title:Panel from a Rectangular Box
Date:10th–early 11th century
Geography:Made in Spain, probably Cordoba
Medium:Ivory; carved, inlaid with stone with traces of pigment
Dimensions:H. 4 1/4 in. (10.8 cm) W. 8 in. (20.3 cm)
Classification:Ivories and Bone
Credit Line:John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913
In their time, the royal quarters at Madinat al-Zahra, the caliphal court in al-Andalus, must have been a spectacular sight, with lavish architectural decoration; luxuriant curtains, textiles, and furnishings; and sumptuous objects. Elephant ivory, one of the favorite materials, was used mostly to create objects of small size that were made with painstaking attention to the details and quality of the carvings. In caliphal Spain, as far as is known, entire elephant tusks were not kept as trophies or symbols of power, nor were they turned into oliphants (see no. 04.3.177a).
The most common small ivory object was the cylindrical box with a domed lid that is usually referred to as a pyxis (see no. 30.95.175). Such boxes were carved from a piece of solid ivory taken from a section of the tusk that could be made into a container with straight walls. To create a square box—four sides plus a bottom and a lid—the panels of solid ivory needed to be flat; even larger tusks that would offer a usable cross section were then required.
At roughly four by eight inches (11 by 20 cm) and one half inch (1 cm) thick, this relief-carved flat panel may seem diminutive, but a wide portion of a tusk would have been needed for its production. It originally belonged to one of the panels of a square or rectangular casket, and the quality of its carving is nothing short of superb. The precision of detail, paired with the careful planning of the design, places the work among those few that continue to appear sharp and delicate under significant magnification. Features such as the minuscule shiny quartz stones embedded in the eyes of the figures and the red, green, and blue pigments highlighting the carved elements only increase one’s appreciation for this extraordinary work.
It has been suggested that the decoration of the plaque was inspired by contemporary textiles, and indeed the repeated units and density of its design recall patterns found in woven textiles and embroidery. The main features of the composition— the playful paired dancing figures facing each other on either side of a stylized tree and the paired predatory birds, peacocks, and jackals — strongly recall older traditions from Late Antiquity as well as contemporaneous ones from early medieval southern Europe. The general pattern, however, is quintessentially Islamic: allover decoration and harmonious symmetry within a subtle geometric division of the space. The excellent parallels it finds in the carved-stucco and stone architectural decorations from Madinat al-Zahra testify to the current decorative taste at the caliphal court.
Stefano Carboni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. The most celebrated of these objects is the so-called al-Mughira Pyxis in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (no. OA 4068); see multiple color views in Les Andalousies de Damas à Cordue. Exhibition, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. Catalogue by Marthe Bernus-Taylor and others. Paris, 2000, pp. 120–21, no. 103. Many such boxes are reproduced in Folsach and Meyer, eds. 2005, pt. 2, pp. 314–25, 330, 332, 336–37, 339.
2. Dodds 1992, p. 203, no. 6.
3. See Rosser-Owen 2010.
Panel from a Casket
Here the lush but delicately executed repeating pattern of paired birds, foxes, and dancing human figures set against a background of graceful arabesques probably reflects a strong connection to patterned textiles. In this respect the panel may be associated with several other boxes from al-Andalus decorated with textile patterns, including the pyxis of al-Mughira (cat. no. 3 in this volume).
The panel, carved from a single piece of elephant ivory, surely was made for a rectangular casket. It must have been cut down, as only the top edge has the expected decorative border and finish. Significant traces of pigment remain: red and green paint on the foliage throughout, blue pigment on one flower, and green paint on the tails of birds. There is no pigment on the figures, however. The eyes of the humans and animals were drilled and inlaid with a clear stone, possibly quartz, surrounded by a dark material.
Such color and inlay were typically used on ivories made for the court—they must indeed have been of spectacular richness. An inscription on a contemporary cylindrical box reads in part: beauty has invested me with splendid raiment, which makes a display of jewels. Clearly the allusions here to textiles and jewels were not mere hyperbole.
Daniel Walker in [Dodds 1992]
1. Conservation report by Dorothy Abramitis, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 30, 1991.
2. Beckwith, John. Caskets from Cordoba. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, 1960, p. 14. Reprinted in John Beckwith. Studies in Byzantine and Medieval Western Art. London, 1989, pp. 194–265.
[ Jacques Seligman, Paris, until 1913; sold to Blumenthal for MMA]
Granada. Alhambra. "Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain," March 18–June 7, 1992, no. 6.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain," July 1–September 27, 1992, no. 6.
Aanavi, Don. "Western Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 27, no. 3 (November 1968). p. 199, ill. (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 7 (b/w).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 29, ill. fig. 17 (color).
Babaie, Sussan. "The Sound of the Image/The Image of the Sound: Narrativity in Persian Art of the 17th Century.." Islamic Art and Literature (2000).
Dodds, Jerrilynn D., Dr., Oleg Grabar, Antonio Vallejo Triano, Daniel S. Walker, Renata Holod, Cynthia Robinson, Juan Zozaya, Manuel Casamar Pérez, Christian Ewert, Guillermo Rossello Bordoy, Cristina Partearroyo, Sabiha Al Khemir, Dario Cabanelas Rodriguez, James Dickie, Jesus Bermudez Lopez, D. Fairchild Ruggles, and Juan Vernet. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, edited by Dr. Jerrilynn D. Dodds. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. no. 6, p. 203, ill. (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. 315, ill. fig. 9 (color).
Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. p. 80, ill. (color).
Frishkopf, Michael, and Federico Spinetti. Music, Sound, and Architecture in Islam. Austin, Texas: University of Texas, 2018. pp. 244–45, ill. fig. 9.11 (b/w).
Ali, Wijdan. The Arab Contribution to Islamic Art : From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Centuries. Jordan: The Royal Society of Fine Arts, Jordan, 1999. p. 111, ill. fig. 64 (b/w).
Makariou, Sophie, Juan Zozaya, Abderrazzak Zakzouk, Cristobal Gonzalez Roman, Pierre Guichard, Marthe Bernus-Taylor, Gabriel Martinez-Gros, Danielle Jacquart, Hamid Triki, Christian Poche, and Abdesselam Cheddadi. Les Andalousies de Damas a Cordoue. Institut du Monde Arabe, 2001. no. 105, p. 123, ill. (color).
Galán y Galindo, Ángel. "Catalogo De Piezas." In Marfiles Medievales Del Islam. vol. 2. Cordoba: Publicaciones Obra Social Y Cultural Cajasur, 2005. p. 64, ill. fig. 02014.
Von Folsach, Kjeld, and Joachim Meyer, ed. The Ivories of Muslim Spain: Papers from a Symposium Held in Copenhagen from the 18th to the 20th of November 2003. Journal of the David Collection, Vol. pt. 2. Copenhagen: The David Collection, 2005.
Shalem, Avinoam, ed. The Chasuble of Thomas Becket : A Biography. Munich, Germany: Hirmer Verlag, 2017. p. 138, fig. 115.
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. Islamic Arts from Spain. London, 2010.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 36, pp. 54, 67–68, ill. p. 67 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 114–15, ill. pl. 20 (color).
Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. p. 127, ill. (color).
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