The twelve signs of the zodiac are arranged around the surface of the vessel in groups of four, each surrounding a central medallion with a horsemen or a falconer. Virgo (al-sunbula, "ear of corn") is the only sign of the Zodiac whose iconography is very different from that of Western cycles. For some reason, while the name of the constellation is al-cadhra ("the virgin") and it is depicted in astronomical treatises as a female figure, the name of the corresponding sign of the Zodiac was sunbula, after the brightest star of the constellation. Therefore, in representations on objects, the image of the female virgin was replaced by a male figure, evidently Gemini's Planetary Lord Mercury, who was shown as a farmer slashing ears of corn with a crescent-shaped scythe.
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Detail of Virgo sign
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Title:Inkwell with Twelve Zodiac Medallions
Date:late 12th–early 13th century
Geography:Attributed to Iran
Medium:Brass; cast, inlaid with silver and copper
Dimensions:H. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm) Diam. 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1944
Inkwell without Lid
The typology of this inkwell, whose lid is missing, is well known, and the short discussion in catalogue number 12 of this volume (MMA no. 59.69.2a,b) provides a good description of this kind of object.
The twelve signs of the Zodiac are arranged around the surface of the vessel in three groups of four. Each group comprises five medallions, four of which include a zodiacal sign, while the central medallion depicts a horseman (or in one case a falconer). The five medallions are linked to one another by interlacing patterns. The empty spaces in the background are filled with vegetal scrolls terminating in zoomorphic heads. The signs of the Zodiac are represented in their traditional order: For example, the second group of four includes Leo (upper right comer), Virgo (lower right), Libra (upper left), and Scorpio (lower left). All of them follow the established iconography. The three groups are separated by additional lobed medallions that are undecorated except for the tiny heads of three copper nails that were hammered through the wall of the inkwell. These nails, once functional, originally held together the small plaques provided with holes through which a cord for suspension would have been passed. Two other inkwells are known, at the time in private collections, that show the very same decorative repertoire of medallions with three groups of four signs of the Zodiac, the small interspersed plaques still nailed in place between them.
The underside of the inkwell is also ornamented—although some areas are left plain—with a pattern that is found, as well, on another inkwell, also in a private collection, on the bottom of which is a large central medallion including a six-pointed star partially camouflaged by interlacing patterns. Around the border, bands interrupted by the empty areas are filled with the vegetal scrolls ending in zoomorphic heads that characterize the body of the present inkwell.
In general, both the silver and the copper inlays—the latter, used sparingly—largely remain in place, which serves to make this object still fresh and appealing.
1. See Pope, Arthur Upham, Survey of Persian Art, Oxford, 1939, pl. 1311 C-D.
2. Baer, Eva. The Nisan Tasi: A Study in Persian-Mongol Metalware, Kunst des Orients, 9 (1973–74), fig. 212.
Paul Garnier, Paris (in 1927); Sarah Green Walters (American), Baltimore, MD (until 1941; to Brummer); [ Brummer Gallery, New York, 1941–44; sold 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. 14.
Migeon, Gaston. Manuel d'Art Musulman: Arts Plastiques et Industriels. Paris: Editions Auguste Picard, 1927. no. II, ill, fig. 247.
"Seljuk Bronzes from Khurasan." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 4 (November 1945). pp. 87–92, ill. p. 90 (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 14, pp. 34–35, ill. (b/w).
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