A sun symbol occupies the center of this plate, but instead of the planets orbiting it, we find musicians and other courtly figures. Here, the sun may symbolize earthly power and physical strength rather than a heavenly body.
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Title:Tray with Sun Symbol
Geography:Attributed to Egypt or Syria
Medium:Brass; cast, chased, engraved, inlaid with silver and gold
Dimensions:H. 1 in. (2.5 cm) Diam. 9 13/16 in. (25 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
In the Metropolitan Museum's archival files, this medium-sized plate is listed as belonging with a tripodal cylindrical incense burner with a domed lid and a long, straight handle (MMA no. 17.190.1716). These two objects have a few decorative patterns in common, such as the interlaced Z-shaped motifs in the background and inside the medallions, the crown surrounded by rays at the center of the plate, and the geometrical border. In addition, they are both inlaid with gold and silver. Nonetheless, the two objects do not seem to be part of a set because their overall decoration is rather different, yet their association is probably correct functionally, since this plate might, indeed, have served as a base on which an incense burner could be placed.
Narrow concentric bands, including geometric or scroll patterns, fill the space around the cavetto and the border of the plate and frame the central design that completely covers its bottom surface. The image of the Sun appears at the very center of the decoration as a circle (once inlaid with gold) surrounded by twelve long, pointed rays; this central motif then opens up to form a multipetaled flower, the background of which includes geometric and vegetal patterns and confronted birds. The medallion that encloses the multipetaled flower, in turn, is surrounded by six other roundels, each linked to the central one by a continuous interlacing band. All the medallions contain a haloed figure of a musician, who is seated with his legs crossed: five of them have an instrument (two play the tambourine, two others the nayy [a type of flute], and one the lute) and the sixth is probably a singer. A beaker is visible against the background of each medallion, thus underscoring the convivial aspect of the scene.
The solar symbolism of the entire central design is further emphasized by the band of rays that frames it, echoing the emblem of the sun disk at the plate's immediate center. As mentioned in discussing the compositions of MMA nos. 91.1.605, 57.36.4, and 91.1.604 (catalogue numbers 4, 7, and 17 in this volume), six planets usually surround the Sun—one would expect to see images of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn around it—but, in the case of this plate, whose composition is identical, they have been replaced by the six musicians and by more conventional scenes of courtly pastimes. This represents one of the few instances in Islamic art—which is generally conservative in its repetition of established designs—where a conventional composition has been deliberately manipulated to modify the general symbolism of an art object. Unfortunately, the absence of an inscription, which could have provided additional information, precludes a better understanding of this adaptive process.
J. Pierpont Morgan (American), New York (until d. 1913; his estate 1913–17; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Hagop Kevorkian Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art," February 4–August 31, 1997, no. 1.
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 1, pp. 8–9, ill. (b/w).
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