Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Writing Box with Lattice and Flower Design

Object Name:
Writing box
mid-17th century
Made in India, Deccan, possibly Burhanpur
Wood; overlaid with dyed wool, stamped silver and gilt-copper plaques
H. 5 3/8 in. (13.6 cm)
W. 16 3/8 in. (41.5 cm)
Depth 12 5/8 in. (32 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family Gift, 1998
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 450
The gilded copper sheets and silver plaques covering the exterior of this box are fashioned in a classic "lattice and flower" variant of the flower style. Because of the technique of fastening the metal over the wood, the box has been attributed to Burhanpur, a city in the northern Deccan, where similar work is found in architecture.

This portable box with internal compartments and drawers most likely originally held writing implements or other objects for the use of an Indian nobleman, although traces of sandalwood paste within indicate ritual use in a later period. The body of the box was constructed from several pieces of hardwood, probably from the indigenous shisham tree, and was outfitted with brass hinges and drawer pulls. In contrast with the unadorned interior, the exterior is sumptuously overlaid with amalgam-gilded copper sheets and ajoure silver plaques stamped with the "lattice-andflower" pattern that had become popular in the Mughal decorative arts by about 1640. The silver plaques were secured with dome-headed silver nails against a plain-weave woolen backing—now largely lost—that was tinted red with madder lake, a dye derived from plant roots of the Rubiaceae family, which would also have been available in the region.[1]

The technique seen here is familiar from Gujarati wood caskets overlaid with small pieces of mother-of-pearl going back to the sixteenth century, but such a technique in metalwork is far rarer.[2] It has been noted that a metal overlay tradition existed in sixteenth-century Ottoman Turkey, exemplified by a throne covered with gold sheets held in place by rivets.[3] Such a tradition also existed in Iran, but surviving examples are all later in date, as, for example, a cut-steel plaque of about 1700, backed with a panel of gilt copper.[4] Brass-clad doors embossed with flower-and-star patterns on the Bibi Ka Maqbara of 1661 in Aurangabad, another nearby Mughal center, provide evidence of metal overlay in local Deccani architecture.[5] Taking these points into account, then, the existence of a metal-overlay technique in furniture should not be surprising, even though the proposed box seems to be the sole surviving example.

The decoration and shape of the box have been compared to Indian architectural models, particularly in the integration of surface and form through the grid of strap bands.[6] The flat top and recessed sides recall the profile and elevation of classic Mughal buildings with flat roof, overhanging cornice, raised plinth, and symmetrical columns. While the nature of the decoration is largely Mughal, the taste for opulent gilded objects is associated with southern India. The box has been attributed to Burhanpur in the northern Deccan, an important center for the meeting of Mughal and Deccani traditions, particularly in the production of chintz textiles that share a comparable use of formal repeating flowers contained in lobes or niches.

Navina Haidar and Jean-François de Lapérouse in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. Lapérouse, Jean-François de. “Mixed Media: An Islamic Writing Cabinet.” Met Objectives: The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Treatment and Research Notes 4, no. 2 (2003), pp. 1–3.

2. Folsach, Kjeld von. Islamic Art: The David Collection. Copenhagen, 1990, fig. 298, for a Gujarati penbox with comparable technique.

3. Rogers, J. M[ichael], and Cengiz Köseog˘lu. The Topkapi Saray Museum, The Treasury. Boston, 1987, pl. 2. Ottoman Turkey, with its close relations to the Deccan, can be considered a possible source for the technique in India. These are speculations and reflect research by Daniel Walker, who acquired this work for the Museum.

4. Christie’s London, April 23, 1996, lot 224.

5. Michell, George, and Mark Zebrowski. The Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. The New Cambridge History of India, 1, no. 7.
Cambridge and New York, 1999, p. 134, fig. 99.

6. Loukonine, Vladimir, and Anatoli Ivanov. Lost Treasures of Persia: Persian Art in the Hermitage Museum. Washington, D.C., 1996, no. 223, illustrates a Safavid box of comparable shape.

This box is one among a group of similarly decorated objects formerly in the collection of the Rajas of Bobbili, a small state in the eastern Deccan, near the port of Vishakhapatnam.[1] Included in the group is an elegant seat, probably part of a palanquin, which remains in a private collection (fig. 88: Palanquin. Deccan, 17th century. Private collection, Hong Kong).

Divided into internal compartments beneath its hinged top, the box most likely was designed as a portable desk and would have held writing implements and other valuable objects. Its interior is made from a hardwood, probably from the shisham, which is indigenous to the Deccan. The silver plaques were originally set against a plain-weave wool textile, now largely lost, which was tinted red with madder lake, a dye derived from the roots of the Rubiaceae plant family native to the region.[2]

The exterior of the box is ornamented in the classic Mughal lattice-and-flower style, with formal blossoms incorporated into lobed compartments. Its flat top and recessed sides recall the profile and elevation of Mughal buildings, with their flat roofs, overhanging cornices, raised plinths, and symmetrical columns.[3] Metal overlay is known in the architecture of the Deccan, as seen in brass-clad doors embossed with floral and stellar patterns on the Bibi ka Maqbara (Queen’s Tomb, 1661, fig. 81).[4] Furthermore, the rounded petals on the box’s floral motifs are akin to architectural ornamentation at Golconda, found on the Hira Masjid (1668), on the facade of the mosque atop the Charminar (Four Towers, 1591), and within the mosaic designs in the Badshahi Ashurkhana (Royal Mourning House, 1611).[5] Additionally, the flowering plant motif in the lobed cartouche is reminiscent of colored stuccowork recovered from the inner fort of Golconda.[6]

Courtney Stewart in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)


1- Thanks are due to Terence McInerney for providing this information.

2- See de Lapérouse, Jean-Francois with Maya Naunton, "Mixed Media: An Islamic Writing Cabinet." Met Objectives: Treatment and Research Notes (Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) 4, no. 2 (Spring), 2003, pp. 1–3.

3- For example, the Itimad al-Daula or Salim Chishti’s tomb at Fatehpur Sikri.

4- Michell, George and Mark Zebrowski. Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates. The New Cambridge History of India 1, no. 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1999, p. 134, fig. 99.

5- Nayeem, Muhammed Abdul. "The Heritage of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda and Hyderabad." Hyderabad: Hyderabad Publishers, 2006, p. 166, fig. 2, p. 192, fig. 1(a); Safrani, "Golconda Alums: Shimmering Standards." 1992, p. 74, ill. no. 3.

6- Nayeem, Muhammed Abdul. "The Heritage of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda and Hyderabad." Hyderabad: Hyderabad Publishers, 2006, p. 318, fig. 17.
Private collection, England; [ Terence McInerney, New York, by 1997–98; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Courtly Radiance: Metalwork from Islamic India," September 25, 2001–May 5, 2002, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Making the Invisible Visible," April 2, 2013–August 4, 2013, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 176.

Carboni, Stefano, Daniel Walker, and J. Kenneth Moore. "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1997–1998; Islam." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 57, no. 2 (1998-1999). p. 11, ill. (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 276, pp. 8, 341, 388-389, ill. p. 388 (color).

Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 176, pp. 299-300, ill. pl. 176 (color).

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