Pen Box

Object Name: Pen box

Date: 13th century

Geography: Attributed to Northern Iraq or Western Iran, Al-Jazira

Medium: Brass; engraved, incised, and inlaid with silver

Dimensions: Box closed:
H. 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm)
W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm)
D. 1 11/16 in. (4.3 cm)
Wt, 13.3 oz. (377.1 g)
Box opened:
H. 4 7/8 in. (12.4 cm)
W. 8 7/8 in. (22.5 cm)
D. 1 3/16 in. (3 cm)

Classification: Metal

Credit Line: Gift of Joseph W. Drexel, 1889

Accession Number: 89.2.194


Muslim metalworkers produced large numbers of pen boxes, many of which were richly decorated with inlays of gold, silver, and copper. A typical medieval Islamic calligrapher's pen box is an elongated rectangular object with rounded corners, about ten inches long, three inches wide, and two inches tall. In its simple construction, it is composed of a main body and a lid with two hinges along one of the long sides and a clasp on the opposite side. The interior includes a receptacle to hold the inkwell in one corner while the remaining space is reserved for a variety of reed pens and penknives. The present pen box shows a typical overall silver-inlaid decoration combining calligraphic, vegetal, and figural designs both on the exterior and the interior surfaces. It is, however, unique in that the main field on the lid is occupied by three roundels depicting the Moon flanked by the planets Jupiter and Venus in the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Libra, respectively. The box therefore also had an astrological significance, being most likely associated with the owner's birth, whereas the moon took on a talismanic relevance, since its image symbolically protected the entire object.