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Box

  • Place of origin:

    Egypt (possibly, made)
    Syria (possibly)

  • Date:

    750- 850 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Ivory, carved and painted; beechwood lid, painted and gilded on a gesso ground; rock crystal knob and gilt copper fittings

  • Museum number:

    136-1866

  • Gallery location:

    Islamic Middle East, Room 42, The Jameel Gallery, case WE6

The body of this container is one of the earliest Islamic ivories to survive. Small birds perch in a grapevine, a design inherited from the pre-Islamic period. The vine scrollwork covers the whole available surface.

Physical description

The circular box is carved from one piece of ivory, and shaped like the lower half of a gourd. The carved decoration, which has a flat outer surface, consists of five-lobed vine leaves enclosed within the spiralling tendrils of the vines, which originate from small vases. The vine scroll is inhabited by three birds. The background of the ivory carving was painted at some point in its history. A wide band of plain ivory at the neck is encircled by a gilded metal band (copper with applied mercury gilding). The lid is beech wood, decorated in gesso with red (vermilion) and blue (azurite) pigments, and gold leaf. The design is divided into eight compartments, each containing an abstract vegetal motif. The spherical rock crystal knob is pierced by a metal spike which terminates in a ring. The lid and metal mounts are of a later, as yet unspecified date. They had obviously experienced substantial wear before the object's acquisition by the Museum in 1866.

Place of Origin

Egypt (possibly, made)
Syria (possibly)

Date

750- 850 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Ivory, carved and painted; beechwood lid, painted and gilded on a gesso ground; rock crystal knob and gilt copper fittings

Dimensions

Height: 14 cm, Diameter: 8.5 cm

Object history note

The Museum acquired this piece in London from Mr H. Durlacher for £25.

Historical significance: This is one of only three such ivories to survive intact, and provides an important example of ivory-carving of the early Abbasid period.

Historical context note

This box was published by Ernst Kühnel (1971), cat.no.2, along with two similar cylindrical boxes in the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin (cat.no.1) and the private collection of the Marquis Hubert de Ganay (cat.no.3, present whereabouts unknown). The V&A's Sculpture Department registers mention another formerly in the Bourgeois Collection (Sale, Cologne, 1904, no.1053). The dimensions of the two other examples published by Kühnel are significantly smaller than the V&A box (heights of 9.5 and 8.5 cm respectively, compared to 14 cm), but their decoration is very similar. They all share a flat carving style, and a decoration of five-lobed vine leaves enclosed within spiralling tendrils, which originate from small vases. The V&A box is the only one of the group to feature any figural decoration (three birds).

The carved decoration of the ivory surface consists of vine leaves, grapes and birds contained within a scrolling stem. The decoration of this ivory continues the pre-Islamic art of the Mediterranean area, where plant forms were very common. Naturalistic plant forms were continued in the ornament of the Umayyad period, especially in the carved stone decoration of the Umayyad palaces, such as Mshatta (about 744) and Qasr al-Tuba (743-44) in Jordan.

However, this type of ornament continued under the Abbasids, who came to power in Iraq in 750. Examples of early Abbasid ornament - such as three wooden doors in the Benaki Museum in Athens - are very similar to the vine scrolls seen on this ivory. The style of the leaves has already become less naturalistic, showing the influence of pre-Islamic Persian art, which began a trend in Abbasid art towards more abstract forms. This abstract style really began with the construction of the first palaces at Samarra (in northern Iraq) in the 830s.

Descriptive line

Circular ivory box with wooden lid and gilded metal mounts; Syria or Egypt, 8th-9th centuries, though the lid and mounts are of a much later date.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Kühnel, E. Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen VIII-XIII Jh, Berlin, 1971. P.25, no. 2, pl.I.
Dimand, M.S., "Studies in Islamic Ornament, I: Some aspects of Omaiyad and Early Abbasid Ornament", Ars Islamica IV (1937)
Ernst Kühnel, "Some notes on the façade of Mshatta", Studies in Honour of Professor K.A.C. Creswell, London & Beccles, 1965, pp.132-146
Henri Stern, "Quelques oeuvres sculptées en bois, os et ivoire de style omeyyade", Ars Orientalis I, 1954, pp.119-131
Moraitou, Mina, "Umayyad ornament on early Islamic woodwork: a pair of doors in the Benaki Museum", Museio Benaki, 1, 2001, pp.159-172

Labels and date

BOX
Ivory with wooden lid and gilded metal mounts.
MESOPOTAMIAN (or COPTIC); 8th-9th century.
The lid and mounts of later date. [Used until 11/2003]
Casket with Vine Scrolls
Egypt or Syria
750-850

The body of this container is one of the earliest Islamic ivories to survive. Small birds perch in a grapevine, a design inherited from the pre-Islamic period. The vine scrollwork covers the whole available surface.

Ivory, carved and painted; the painted wooden lid, rock crystal knop and gilt copper fittings are later additions

Museum no. 136-1866 [2006]

Materials

Elephant ivory; Beech (wood); Gesso; Gold leaf; Azurite; Vermillion; Copper

Techniques

Mercury-gilding; Carving

Subjects depicted

Vine scroll; Birds; Grapes

Categories

Islam; Containers

Collection

Middle East Section

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