By Emily Andrews
Ivory craftsmanship in early Islamic art represents one of the important artistic traditions of the royal courts. Due to its rarity and expense, ivory was considered a luxury material that was specifically associated with court art. Some ivory objects were made for gifts to members of the royal family, while others were used as political gestures given to important allies and friends. In either function, the ivories were typically carved with images relating to the royal court that further emphasize the objects’ high status. This royal imagery takes the form of low-relief images of royal figures, princely activities, and symbolic animal motifs that are all rendered with extensive detail. Overall, both the material and decorative aspects of Islamic ivories establish the artistic significance and affluence of the Islamic royal courts.
Ivory bears significance in the artistic realm of early Islamic court society. During the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, ivory had been gaining value throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic Spain (Collon 1977). At this time, ivory was considered a rarity, as it was derived from the limited supply of elephant tusks that were hard to acquire. Its durable and smooth texture made it easy to carve the intricate and abstract designs of Islamic art (Macaulay-Lewis). As a result, ivory was highly desirable for artistic purposes and became increasingly expensive. These circumstances, therefore, primarily directed the ivory market towards the families of the royal court who could afford and utilize this luxurious material as an implication of wealth and power (Dodds 1992; Prado-Vilar 1997). The suggestion is that the use and possession of this precious material alone signifies the prestigious class of the beholder, therefore ivory produces were associated with royalty.
Beyond the prestigious material, the decorative carvings on these ivory boxes express themes of prestige that also reflect their royal owners. Primarily, representations of princely figures are often depicted to show aristocratic habits. The Pyxis of al-Mughira, for example, is decorated with four scenes that communicate a political message about the royal lineage from the caliph al-Hakam II (Prado Vilar 1997). The first scene, specifically, portrays al-Hakam II’s two heirs sitting atop a lion throne amidst a lute player (Figure 1). This imagery expresses the authority inherent in the royal family. Two lions physically support the royal heirs on their throne, which specifically alludes to their authority and royal heritage. Essentially, while the lion is commonly referred to as the king of the beasts, the royal family commands a sense of respect and might that is far superior to that of the beasts (Adey 1993). Additionally, the heirs are dressed in formal, luxurious outfits that include robes embellished with tiraz bands. Tiraz bands are inscribed textiles that are attached to robes of honor as a symbol of loyalty to the caliphate (Ekhtiar and Cohen 2000). These bands often signify the wealth, status, and influence of the recipient and were, therefore, important in distinguishing those within royal court (Ekhtiar and Cohen 2000). These tiraz bands indicate that the heirs are wearing rich garb that draws attention to their princely affluence and power. Both the pyxis’ lion imagery and the costume details emulate the extravagant lifestyle and tastes of its beholder. Therefore, the decorative distinctions of power help reflect the importance of the people in the court.
Representations of nobility are also depicted on the pyxis made in ca. 969-970 for Ziyad ibn Aflah who worked as a prefect for the caliphal court in Cordoba. Motifs of royalty are shown in three medallion scenes. The first scene depicts a man of high rank sitting cross-legged on a throne (Figure 2). He rests comfortably between two attendants that wait on him attentively. The imagery here, again, references themes of glorified power, as the central figure is rendered on a throne with royal connotations. Additionally, the inclusion of attendants further demonstrates an imperial quality as only high-ranking officials had the political clout and wealth to maintain personal servants (Baer 1999). In this respect, the imagery is related to aspects of the ruling family by portraying images of royal significance. Although Ziyad ibn Aflah was not a direct member of the royal family, his possession of this box suggests it was a luxurious gift from an important member of the court (Victoria and Albert Museum). Ultimately, the conventional princely representations contribute to an understanding of the imperial reign.
Ivory objects also often included scenes of hunting and royal celebrations that were established activities of the Islamic nobility. The Morgan Casket, for example, is extensively carved with images of human figures engaging in the hunting activities that reference court life. For example, images of men with spears hunt down exotic beasts and birds in the repeated circular vignettes on the casket (Figure 3). Hunting is an activity that requires skill, strength, and courage, therefore powerful Islamic rulers often used hunting motifs to symbolically assert their superiority and bravery in ruling their kingdom (Blair 2004). Essentially, these images of hunting suggest that the skill and bravery used to overtake animalistic beasts can equally translate to overtake competitors.
This is also demonstrated in the gilded ivory casket that was made in the Umayyad court in 10th century Cordoba. The hunting imagery decorating the panels expresses a similar domineering tone to that of the Morgan Casket. For example, the front panel of the box depicts a scene of two huntsmen on horseback preying on a small gazelle (Figure 4). The huntsmen face each other and point their spears down at the gazelle to suggest its final submission.
The 10th century pyxis from the Victoria and Albert museum also contains similar hunting imagery. One of the medallions depicts a huntsman on horseback. In this scene, a falcon rests atop the huntsman’s right arm (Figure 9). Falcons were commonly used to symbolize Islamic royalty due to their ferocity. Therefore, the depiction of the falcon alludes to the noble status of the huntsmen, as hunting was a particularly notable pastime within the royal court.
This hunting motif is further witnessed in the four ivory panels that belonged to the Fatimid court. In these panels, some huntsmen appear holding spear-like objects faced at lions, while other figures are portrayed carrying the game from their hunt atop their shoulders (Figure 5). In all of these examples, the hunting scenes consistently allude to the dominance of the ruler, as the conquest of beasts implies a threat to any potential challengers. The hunting images, therefore, supports the notion that these objects help characterize the power of Islamic royalty.
Images of celebration with music, food, and wine are also a common decorative motif that show the lavish lifestyle of the princely figures. Specifically, the 11th and 12th century ivory panels from Cairo include repeated images of musicians playing flutes and other string instruments amidst a courtly celebration (Figure 5). The Cordoban, Pyxis of al-Mughira also portrays a lute player that plays for al-Hakam II’s two heirs to the caliphate (Figure 1). In both representations, musicians accompany images of royalty to symbolize the divine qualities of the court (Denny 1985). Scholars suggest that, from early Islamic times, music had a religious significance through reflections of heavenly paradise (Grabar 1978; Denny 1985). Islamic tradition specifically associates angels with musical accompaniment in the heavenly gardens (Grabar 1978; Denny 1985). In the ivories, this tradition is depicted in a way that associates divinity with the royal court by including musical elements in courtly scenes. Therefore, the musicians enhance the importance of the royal figures represented by inducing a religious significance among the figures.
In addition to explicit representations of royalty and princely pastimes, ivories were also commonly decorated with images of animals that symbolize noble attributes. Depictions of lions attacking gazelles were popular motifs that represent royal supremacy. The Cordoban gilded, ivory casket as well as the four, Fatimid ivory panels both repeatedly show this motif. This motif is the central imagery of the back panel of Cordoban casket, where we can explicitly see the lion’s teeth digging in to the backside of the gazelle (Figure 6). In the four ivory panels, this motif is also depicted with great detail, as the lion pounces onto the back of the gazelle in attack (Figure 5). This vicious animal dynamic is used to symbolize the political strength of Islamic rulers (Behrens-Abouseif). The implication is that while the Islamic kingdom represents the mighty lion, the enemies are rendered in the more weak and docile role of the gazelle (Behrens-Abouseif). Therefore, this imagery insinuates threat to any opposition, under the assumption that the Islamic kingdom has incomparable power and untouchable superiority. In this way, the symbolic imagery of the lion and gazelle gives the ruler confidence by reinforcing the overarching dominance of the royal court, capable of protecting its empire.
The Pyxis of al-Mughira utilizes similar imagery, however, portrays the lion attacking a bull rather than a gazelle (Figure 7). In this adaptation, the motif further purports the political and militaristic power of the Islamic reign by enhancing the opponent. Essentially, a bull has aggressive connotations as it is considered a wild and dangerous animal (Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art 2014). However, in the pyxis carvings, the lion is still able to conquer and thwart the bull’s hostile intentions. Because the lion can be cited as a symbol of the rulers of the royal court, this imagery contributes to the significance of the court by demonstrating that even qualified combatants cannot effectively cross the regal kingdom.
In addition to lions, gazelles, and bulls, eagles are also commonly portrayed as emblems of royal power (Prado Vilar 1997). On the lid of the Morgan Casket, for example, there is a roundel that depicts an eagle that is spreading its wings (Figure 8). This decoration is important in identifying the kingly quality of the box, as the eagle is essentially a symbol of royalty. Similarly, in the Pyxis of al-Mughira the second medallion scene features the al-Hakam II’s two sons reaching up to three eagle nests (Figure 10). Prado Vilar posits that this scene depicts the two youths grasping their share of the royal throne (Prado Vilar 1997). In these two examples, the illustrations of the eagle reference the aristocracy and connect the imagery to a royal context. The eagle is an important symbol of the court due to its inherently brave and fierce qualities. Therefore, it is repeatedly shown on these courtly pieces to further demonstrate the significance of the royal court.
Ultimately, both the material and the figural decorations of the Islamic ivories reinforce traditions of male sovereignty. The luxurious material and royal decorations specifically contribute to the aesthetic appeal and high status of these objects that were created for royalty, officials, and allies. As a result, ivory objects were cherished and revered throughout the royal court as precious and desirable objects. However, in the growing political tension between the Christian and Islamic forces, Christian kings took the ivory caskets as war booty (Harris 1995). Essentially, Christians intended to steal these pieces as evidence of their burgeoning power over Islamic kingdoms (Harris 1995). Much of this is explained by the fact that these pieces were expensive and important to the Islamic royal court. Therefore, the political desirability of these pieces further suggests the ivories’ significance, as they essentially represented physical portrayals of power. Overall, Islamic ivories were designed to express rank and importance within the royal courts. This sense of importance is, ultimately, evidenced in the lavish material of the objects, the decorative references to royal affluence, luxury, and power, as well as the pieces’ implicit values between the Christian and Islamic political dynamic. In these ways, the ivories function as political, social, and economic determinants of the profound, Islamic royalty.
Pyxis of al-Mughira, 357/968 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Pyxis from Madinat al-Zahra, 969-970, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Morgan Casket, 11th and 12th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Casket from Cordoba, 966-968, David Collection in Park Museerne
Four Ivory Panels, 11th and 12th centuries from the Fatimid court
Backside of the Casket from Cordoba, 966-968, David Collection in Park Museerne
Medallion scene of lion attacking a bull in the Pyxis of al-Mughira, 357/968 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Eagle imagery in the Morgan Casket, 11th and 12th centuries, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Eagle imagery in the Pyxis from Madinat al-Zahra, 969-970, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Eagle imagery in the Pyxis of al-Mughira, 357/968 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
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