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.
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