History object

Engraved Ivory Casket with Silver Fittings (Islam, Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba, 966) Spain, Madinat al-Zarha.

Brief IdentificationEdit

This casket is a decorative piece of Islamic craftsmanship made of carved ivory and fitted with engraved silver.  The casket was created in the palace-city of Madinat al-Zarha near Cordoba, Spain, and is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.  Viewed as a piece of Islamic art today, its original purpose was more practical, as a recepticle for the safekeeping of precious items, such as jewelry or perfumes, in the case of the owner's death [See Blair 2004, 375-76].

The casket comes from the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1030 CE).  This particular casket was made in the year 966 AD, under the rule of Al-Hakam II (r. 961-976 CE), and is one of many similar containers created during this period of Islamic history in Spain.  The excellent preservation of the piece makes it a great example for the study of Moorish culture.

Technical EvaluationEdit

This ivory casket, among most other ivories from 10th century Cordoba, was fashioned through the use of high relief carving and undercutting techniques on various flat plaques of ivory, which are then joined together by ivory pegs.  Larger caskets were sometimes made with wooden frames, and then paneled with ivory carved in the same way, while some smaller caskets were simply carved from two large pieces of ivory and joined with a hinge [See Pinder-Wilson, et al 2008].

The use of strong metal carving tools was a necessity for the production of these caskets, and the implementation of the hand drill adapted from mediterranean practices is thought to be important as well [See Dodds, et al 2012].  The silver fittings suggest access to metalworking technology as well.  The intricacies involved in the design of the caskets, especially the carving itself, required skilled artisans.  According to J.M. Rogers, "both inscribed and uninscribed pieces were made in a court workshop which monopolized the talents of specialist craftsmen." [See Rogers 2007, 171].

Due to its rarity, ivory was expensive and hard to come by, even for those with considerable influence.  There are points throughout history in which the sudden lack of carved pieces suggests a very restricted quantity of ivory.  The majority of Indian ivory remained in India, so most of the ivory supply moving through the Mediterranean and into the Iberian Penninsula moved from Africa across the Sahara and the Red Sea [See Rogers 2007, 172]. 

The aquisition of this and other ivory caskets from Islamic Spain was largely from Christian churches, which had possession of many Islamic ivory pieces since the Christian conquests of Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries.  The Christian church often used the ivory boxes as containers for Holy relics, rather than their original purpose as Royal caskets.  [See Shalem 1995, 24-25].  The placement of some of these items in museums is a result of the fact that many of the most outstanding works of Islamic ivory art were so well preserved in the Spanish churches. [See Balbas 1951, 177]

Local Historical ContextEdit

The Caliphate of Cordoba was born from the ashes of the Umayyad empire (661-750 CE).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica website, the Umayyad dynasty "was the first great Muslim dynasty to rule the empire of the Caliphate."  A series of military losses and major city revolts greatly weakened the strength of the dynasty, and eventually made way for the rise of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE), who promptly attempted to execute all the remaining Umayyad royalty.  A survivor of the Umayyad house, Abd al-Rahman, escaped to Spain and established himself Muslim ruler in Cordoba, thereby founding a new Umayyad dynasty on the Iberian peninsula.  The new dynasty, however, did not become official as the Caliphate of Cordoba until almost two centuries later when religious disunity presented an opportunity to claim the title of Caliph.

The first Caliph of Cordoba took the name al-Nasir in 929 and called his Iberian lands al-Andalus.  He ruled until his death in 961 CE and was suceeded by his son al-Hakam II.  Al-Hakam II completed construction of Madinat al-Zahra, which his father had started building before he died.  This marks the beginning of the first decorative ivory pieces being made in Spain.  Accoriding to Ralph Pinder-Wilson on Oxford Art Online, "There was no indigenous tradition of ivory-working in the Iberian peninsula before the third quarter of the 10th century, when splendid ivories suddenly began to be produced in the court workshops of the Umayyad caliphs." [See Pinder-Wilson, et al 2008].  Court artists, such as ivory crafters, could broaden their reputations by becoming friendly with rulers.  There is some debate on how specialized ivory crastsmen found their way into Spain, but it gives creedence to the notion that the skilled ivory craftsmen was fairly well taken care of and in a good social status.

This particular casket was made in the workshops of of Madinat al-Zahra in the same time period that Al-Hakam II had several similar ivory containers commissioned as gifts for a woman named Subh, one in 964 and two in 966. Ascending the throne at the age of forty-six with no children born to him was a danger for political stability, but Subh was able to provide him with sons where other women were not, possibly due to the fact that she often dressed as a man [See Prado-Vilar 1997, 19-20]. 

The ivory pieces from the area of Cordoba are very easily dated because most of them have a carving or inscription showing the year in which they were crafted, as well as the name of the artist.  This fact lends to the idea that the artist has some autonomy and personal pride in his work [See Prado-Vilar 1997, 20].  Beyond these basics, many of the caskets also included poetic inscriptions in a script called Kufic.  Being made of such a rare organic material such as ivory makes the casket a status symbol to own, but during this time period especially, the carvings and inscriptions in the ivory can also be seen as fertility symbols.  At such an important time for the ruler to have a successor, al-Hakam II was overjoyed when Subh was able to birth him a son.  Many of the inscriptions on her caskets call her the "most loved of the fertile women," and the repeating vegetal patterns in the ivory could be fertility symbols as well [See Prado-Vilar 1997, 20].  The casket picture on this page is not known to be one of the three commissioned to Subh, but it was made in the same year and to the same design.  According to Prado-Vilar, "Ivory caskets, on account of their shape, material, and function as containers, were obvious metaphors for the maternal dimension of women, as attested in Arab poetry, where they were used as comparisons in descriptions of the womb or the breast of the beloved." [See Prado-Vilar 1997, 21].

World Historical SignificanceEdit

This ivory casket from Islamic Spain can really be seen as representative for a variety of economic, political and religious issues of the time period.  Ivory is and always has been a very rare material on this earth, and was certainly circulating on a worldwide trade network because of its luxury.  Having ivory to craft luxury goods was a symbol of economic influence in trade networks.  It also distinguishes cultures like Islam who were able to craft such beautiful pieces of art out of a material which is now illegal to harvest, making it more rare and elite even in the present day.

The fact that so many distiguished ivory caskets came out of a Muslim-occupied Spain claiming itself as a Caliphate gives an idea of the fragmentation of the Muslim political-religous state. 

The casket also highlights the sometimes violent religious struggle between the Muslim Cordoba Caliphate and the rest of the European Christians who want them out.  The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsual by Christian forces showed the looting of any and all precious goods such as the ivory caskets.  In the case of the caskets, "the fact that most of them usually bear the names of the royal personages or court dignitaries for whom they were made meant that they were considered, as soon as they fell in the hands of the Christians, as symbols par excellence of tri-umph over the Islamic enemy. " [See Shalem 1995, 25].  The persistent invasions of the Christian kingdoms eventually led to the complete dissolution of the Muslim state in Spain by 1492.


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