11th and 12th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
The Morgan Casket represents the royal ivory carving tradition from the Fatimid Empire in Norman Sicily. Dating back to the 11th and 12th century, the Morgan Casket is decorated with low-relief carvings of animals and human figures. Additionally, men dressed in turbans and tunics stand at each corner of the casket’s base. These figural decorations and details of the casket, ultimately, reiterate the political strength of the Fatimid kingdom, while asserting the gendered stereotypes of the time.
The casket is elaborately decorated with carved images of animals and human figures engaging in the hunting activities that represent traditional, Islamic princely life. For example, images of men with spears that hunt down exotic beasts and birds are repeated throughout the circular vignettes on the casket. These hunting scenes reiterate one of the pastimes of the kings and royal court, while alluding to their sense of authority. Hunting is an activity that requires skill, strength, and courage. Therefore, powerful rulers used the hunting motifs to assert their superiority and bravery in hunting, as well as in the more formal aspect of ruling their kingdom. It is through these scenes that the royal court could proclaim their royal power to threaten opponents. Essentially, these images suggest that the skill and bravery used to overtake animalistic beasts can equally translate to overtake competitors.
Additionally, the contrast between the various hunting scenes and the solitary lid vignette of the veiled woman sitting above a kneeling camel create a dynamic that reiterates the gender stereotypes of the time. While the men preoccupy the casket’s base with images of hunting and heroic, courageous activities, the lone woman perches atop a camel, distanced from princely activities. This decorative distribution creates a clear distinction between the men’s role in the court and the woman’s role. The men are repeatedly depicted overtaking ferocious animals, which establish their extraordinary strength as leaders of the royal society. However, the woman is modestly veiled and compositionally positioned away from the male figures. This suggests a sense of fragility that is disassociated from the courageous activities that engage the male figures. This separation exemplifies the more passive role of the female in the royal court. The males are portrayed to take on the more tenacious and powerful responsibilities, whereas the woman remains in discrete isolation and protected from the remaining chaos. She, essentially, exists as a precious symbol, detached from the princely behavior that consumes her male counterparts. Therefore, the imagery of the casket elucidates a patriarchal theme of male dominance and female docility, consistent with traditional gender roles.
Similarly, the interaction between the figures and the animals conveys another aspect of gender traditions. The males are portrayed as aggressors towards the animals, as they attack them with spears. The beasts, thus, react with provoked expressions and attempt to defend themselves to the men’s arms. As a result, these scenes invoke a sense of hostility between the animals and the male figures, ultimately suggesting a more combative and militant masculine representation. The woman, on the other hand, commands a sense of peace, respect, and veneration, as the camel beneath her kneels to her presence. In this way, the woman is portrayed with more amiable and affectionate characteristics that welcome the animalistic presence. She acts more tender and nurturing in comparison to the fierce male confrontations. Therefore, there is a clear delineation between the male and female behaviors that reinforce the gendered attitudes of the time. Ultimately, the males subscribe to the dominant and capable roles that reinforce their superior place in the court, relative to the more idle women of the court.
Ultimately, the figural images of the casket reinforce the powerful authority of the royal court, while also signifying conventional gender stereotypes. Primarily, the hunting motifs collectively establish a sense of authority and strength capable of maintaining and defending the reign of the empire. These hunting scenes, however, are contrasted with the veiled, protected woman that reinforces her idler role in the empire, established by gender traditions. Overall, the decoration of the box gives insight to the social and political dynamic of the Fatimid Empire.