10th–early 11th century
Spain, probably Córdoba
Ivory; carved and inlaid with stone with traces of pigment; 4 1/4 x 8 in. (10.8 x 20.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913 (13.141)
KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Umayyad Spain, court life, figural ornament, vegetal ornament, symmetry, cultural exchange, elephant tusk (ivory)
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
The lush vegetal designs on the surface of this plaque, drawn from the visual vocabulary of Umayyad Syria, symbolize abundance and fertility. Like many decorative motifs, these forms were incorporated into a variety of media, including ivory containers, stone architectural surfaces, and ceremonial textiles.
This ivory panel once decorated the side of a box. In Umayyad Spain, containers like this often held precious perfumes and cosmetics. Such elaborately carved boxes would have been ideal for presenting expensive and rare gifts, such as perfume. An inscription on a related example reveals that such boxes were commissioned as gifts for favored women in the royal household. After the fall of Islamic Spain, conquering forces from the north took many precious objects as booty. In Christian hands, boxes like this were often used as reliquaries for saints’ remains.
Complex lacelike decoration, dancing figures, stylized trees, and an assortment of animals such as jackals, peacocks, and birds of prey cover this ivory panel. The dense composition is organized by vertical symmetry that creates a mirrorlike effect resembling the repeating patterns found on textiles. Two full repetitions of the symmetrical pattern cover the plaque, while the edges suggest the extension of the pattern on both sides.
The background, carved in deep relief, features an intricate pattern of scrolling leaves and stems that is characteristic of Spanish Umayyad ornament. Visible traces of pigment suggest the plaque was originally painted. Deep holes reveal where the eyes of the figures were once inset with tiny quartz stones.
This ivory panel was carved from a single piece of elephant tusk. The use of precious ivory made such vessels a popular choice for gifts destined for rulers in Byzantium and the Muslim West.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History