One of the innovations of the Khurasani metalworkers is the development of animated inscriptions, in which parts of letters are transformed into animal or human figures. Here, the tall letters of the inscription on the lid are embellished with human heads. The use of animated inscriptions traveled westward, appearing on metalwork produced in western Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but was never adopted in other media. The body of the inkwell is decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac.
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.
Use your arrow keys to navigate the tabs below, and your tab key to choose an item
Title:Inkwell with Zodiac Signs
Date:early 13th century
Geography:Attributed to probably Iran
Medium:Brass; cast, inlaid with silver, copper, and black compound
Dimensions:H. 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm) H. w/o lid: 3 5/8 in. (9.2 cm) Diam. 4 9/16 in. (11.6 cm)
Credit Line:Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959
Accession Number:59.69.2a, b
Remarkably well preserved, this inkwell is a fine example of the elaborate embellishment applied to utilitarian objects in the medieval Islamic world. Calligraphic tools and implements were particularly ornate, often made of brass or other copper alloys and decorated with elaborate openwork or inlaid designs. It bears a rich decorative program of benedictory Arabic inscriptions in animated naskhi script, animal motifs, and zodiac signs. The body is divided into three registers; the middle one is the widest and is decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac inscribed in interlocked star-shaped medallions. Above and below this wide middle band run two thinner registers with the secondary design of animals set against a background of scrolling vines. The motif of running animals is mirrored on the lid, despite the fact that the base and lid originally belonged to separate objects.
Cylindrical inkwells similar to this one were produced in Greater Iran during the eleventh century under the Seljuq dynasty and continued to be produced in Iran through the thirteenth century. The popularity and often lavish ornamentation of inkwells in this period speak to the cultural importance attached to the art of writing. The choice of astrological signs as the primary decorative theme also reflects contemporary taste, and similar designs can be seen on numerous examples in the Metropolitan Museum and other collections. First introduced into the Islamic world through Greek texts, the art of astrology was considered integral to the science of astronomy. The depiction of the zodiac on precious objects such tions in the medieval Islamic world. Moreover, the presence of such imagery on these objects was thought to invest them with cosmological and talismanic properties, thereby placing their owners under the auspicious influence of the stars.
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. See, for example, a thirteenth-century pen box also in the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 89.2.194). See Carboni 1997, p. 18, no. 6.
2. Ibid., p. 30.
3. Another inkwell, deprived of its lid but also decorated with the zodiac, is housed in the Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 44.131). In addition, astrological themes decorate two of the Museum’s ewers (acc. nos. 44.15 and 91.1.530) and a mortar (acc. no. 91.1.527a), all of which are associated with the twelfth- and thirteenth-century metalwork production of central or eastern Iran (ibid., p. 16, no. 5; p. 22, no. 8; and p. 24, no. 9).
4. Ibid., p. 3.
Inkwell with Lid
Inkwells received special attention in the Islamic world since writing was the principal means of circulating the word of God and the most prominent form of artistic expression. Inkwells of glass, wood, or ceramic were recommended rather than those made of precious metals, and ornamentation consisting of human or animal forms was condemned. Nonetheless, writing eventually went on to become a secular art as well, and, as in Islamic art in all mediums, inkwells soon were regarded as precious objects on account of their complex and sophisticated decoration.
The present large inkwell is one of the best examples of its type. Its excellent state of preservation speaks for the quality of its inlay technique and also for the fine care that it received in the past. With its suspension rings intact, the object is virtually complete, the only exceptions being the missing small glass vessel--the actual receptacle for the ink, which would have fitted into an opening in the bronze--and the loss of only a negligible amount of inlay. The form of this inkwell developed in eastem Iran in the Seljuq period, in the eleventh century, and prevailed through the thirteenth century. As pointed out by Baer, however, the shape of the lid-which sits directly on the horizontal rim of the vessel-its hemispherical dome topped by a pear-shaped finial terminating in a round knob, finds parallels in objects produced in thirteenth-century Mesopotamia and Syria, thus widening the possibilities of its exact place of manufacture.
The entire surface of the object, including the bottom of the base, is lavishly decorated. The body is divided horizontally into three bands, with those on the top and bottom containing files of quadrupeds. The rest of the body as well as the lid are lavishly inlaid with silver. Two inscriptions in "human-faced" naskh script, containing blessings, appear on the inner ring at the top of the body and on the lid (not visible in the illustration). The central register is wider and includes depictions of the twelve signs of the Zodiac set into eight-pointed star-shaped medallions, which are joined by a continuous band that outlines the stars and runs along the borders.The signs are represented in their traditional sequence, from right to left. The iconography is traditional as well, although a preoccupation with details resulted in some minor variations, such as the human-headed pans of the scale in Libra, and the lion with a lion-headed tail in Leo. The presence on three of the twelve medallions of three-lobed plaques with hinged suspension rings required that the three water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces) be depicted on the plaques themselves, whose odd surfaces did not allow the inlay artist to achieve the same excellence as in the other nine medallions. These three signs are hidden under the suspension rings but are visible when the inkwell is in use—that is, when it is suspended from a cord that passes through the rings fastened to its body and lid.
1. Eva Baer, "An Islamic Inkwell in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," in Richard Ettinghausen, ed., Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1972, pp. 208–9.
Inscription: In Arabic in animated naskh script:
On lid: Continuing glory, increasing prosperity, secure life, and good fortune
On top: Glory, prosperity, dominion, dominion ... . (Translation by Yassir al-Tabba, 1978)
العز الدائم/ و الاقبال ا/لزائدو العمر ام/م السالم و الجد
العز وا/ لاقبال/ و الدولـ/ـة و الد/ واله واا/
(A. Ghouchani, 2012)
Charles Mège, Paris(by 1903); [ Brimo de Laroussilhe, Paris, until 1959; sold to MMA]
Paris. Musée des Arts Décoratifs. "Exposition des Arts Muselmans," 1903, pl. XX.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Calligraphy West of China," March 15–May 7, 1972, no catalogue.
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. 13.
New York. Forbes Galleries. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," September 22, 2008–December 31, 2008, p. 117.
Chicago. Field Museum of Natural History. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," February 13, 2009–June 14, 2009, p. 117.
Paris. Institut du Monde Arabe. "Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Jeweled Objects from the Cradle of Civilization," April 19, 2010–July 25, 2010, p. 117.
Migeon, Gaston. "Exposition des Arts Musulmans au Musee des Arts Decoratifs." Les Arts no. 16 (1903). ill. pl. XX.
Baer, Eva. "An Islamic Inkwell in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1972). pp. 202–4, ill. figs. 6–10a,13–14 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 48 (b/w).
Baer, Eva. Metalwork in Medieval Islamic Art. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983. pp. 78–79, ill. fig. 59 (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 12, pp. 30–32, ill.
Baer, Eva. Islamic Ornament. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. p. 118, ill. fig. 131 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Islamic Art and Architecture 650–1250. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. p. 169, ill. fig. 259 (b/w).
Price, Judith. "Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization." In Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry. Philadelphia; London, 2008. p. 117, ill. (color).
Hillenbrand, Robert. "Art, Culture and History." In The Seljuqs and their Successors, edited by Sheila R. Canby, Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020. p. 24, ill. fig. 3.6.
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. 86, pp. 88, 131, ill. p. 131 (color).
Flood, Finbarr Barry, and Gulru Necipoglu. "Volume 1. From the Prophets to the Mongols." In A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture. vol. I. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017. pp. 514–15, ill. fig. 20.4 (b/w).
The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can connect to the most up-to-date data and public domain images for The Met collection. Open Access data and public domain images are available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.
We continue to research and examine historical and cultural context for objects in The Met collection. If you have comments or questions about this object record, please complete and submit this form. The Museum looks forward to receiving your comments.
The Met's collection of Islamic art is one of the most comprehensive in the world and ranges in date from the seventh to the twenty-first century. Its more than 15,000 objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions from Spain to Indonesia.