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Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Four: Science and the Art of the Islamic World/ Featured Works of Art: Images 16–19/ Image 19

Image 19

Mortar made for Abu Bakr 'Ali Malikzad al-Tabrizi
Late 12th–early 13th century
Brass; cast, chased, engraved, and inlaid with silver and a black compound; H. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm), Diam. 5 3/4 in. (14.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891 (91.1.527a,b)

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Medicine, mythology, zodiac, calligraphy (naskh and kufic script), brass, silver

This mortar and pestle (fig. 20) would have been used to grind ingredients for medicine and other mixtures. The auspicious inscriptions and astrological imagery on the mortar reinforce its function as a tool used in healing.

This octagonal silver-inlaid brass mortar is richly decorated with both figural and calligraphic ornament. Six of the eight sides include lobed medallions flanked by harpies—creatures with the face and body of a woman and the wings and claws of a bird. In the center of each medallion are seated figures (one on a throne) or figures on horseback (a falconer, an archer, or two soldiers holding severed heads). The inscriptions in naskh and kufic calligraphy along the top and bottom flared rims contain the name of the owner as well as an array of wishes for his well-being, such as glory, prosperity, happiness, wealth, and good health. The figures depicted in the medallions likely refer to the zodiac and planets. The warriors, for instance, recall Mars (Aries), the god of war, while the archer may represent Sagittarius. The enthroned figure flanked by dragon-headed snakes is thought to represent the invisible "eighth planet," often symbolized by the dragon, which was believed to cause eclipses by swallowing the sun or moon.

Zodiac symbolism was popular in the Persian metalwork of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The inscription on the mortar names the patron as Abu Bakr 'Ali Malikzad al-Tabrizi. The word malikzad denotes a princely status, literally meaning "of/from (zad) a king (malik)." It is possible that the patron of this mortar was a prince of the Seljuq dynasty. The Seljuqs ruled over large territories in Iran, Central Asia, and West Asia (1081–1307). The mortar reflects the royal interest in science and astrology.

Fig. 20. Pestle (91.1.527b)