004L14223_7N6RB_9

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Lot 92. A rare and important Nasrid silvered and gilt-copper pyxis, Spain, 14th century; 11.8cm. height, 12.5cm. diam. Estimate 300,000 — 500,000 GBPLot Sold 674,500 GBP. Photo Sotheby's 2014

the octagonal box with four gilt-copper mounts and loops for hanging, also on fitted flat lid, with silvered and gilt-copper engraved geometric design and incised details throughout surface.

Note: This beautiful pyxis is an extremely rare example of a fourteenth-century metal casket from Nasrid Spain, joining the corpus of only five other recorded examples of Nasrid metalwork, including: a bucket in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional, Madrid; a covered vessel in the Treasury of the Church of San Marco, Rome; a lidded box in the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan; an inkwell formerly in the Homaizi Collection, Kuwait; and a goblet (the only known signed example) sold in these rooms, 8 October 2008, lot 98. Its appearance on the market offers an exceptional opportunity for an institution or private buyer to acquire a major piece of museum-quality importance.

The casket is of octagonal form with straight vertical sides and a flat fitted cover with incised all-over decoration in a pattern of interlacing eight-pointed stars, starting at the lid of the casket with a central twelve-pointed stellar design. Each branch issues from this point to create new designs that also echo the same central motif of the star. The broad bands which make up this pattern were all once completely silvered, of which glinting vestiges survive today. Between each band are carefully incised details: of interwoven braids, palmettes and foliate vegetation on the lid, and palmettes and entwined round foliate branches on the sides, also with silvering along the bands. The borders are braided and the cover and sides feature four mounts with lugs for suspension.

Historical Background: The Nasrids

The Nasrid Dynasty, which was founded by Muhammad I al-Ghalib of Arjona (r.1232-73), ruled Granada and the territory of al-Andalus for over two hundred years and oversaw a splendid artistic patronage that is still hugely admired today. Expanding on a tradition inherited from the Almohad dynasty of North Africa, the Nasrids developed a sophisticated visual language based on complex geometric designs, and are particularly known for their architectural achievements as well as the overglaze lustre technique of decorating ceramics, which was exported from Spain throughout Europe. Their accomplishments in the arts of metalwork are less well-known due to the paucity of surviving examples. This exquisite casket helps to shed light on the elusive history of this tradition which upon close inspection proves rich and significant.

The Decoration

The decorative arts flourished in Spain and the Maghrib in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with many shared motifs characterized by a love of complex geometrical designs which if repeated would continue to infinity. This illusion is achieved by extending geometric patterns. For example: “by prolonging the arms of a six-pointed star, […] the star becomes surrounded by radiating hexagons and generates a motif which allows indefinite repetition and which, from about the eleventh century onwards, was retained for the decoration of buildings and portable objects of art in the eastern and western Islamic world alike” (E. Baer, Islamic Ornament, Edinburgh, 1998, p.49). Deriving from the arts of the book, many of these motifs can be traced back to Qur'anic illumination. Manuscripts, due to their portability, provided a wealth of inspiration to craftsmen working in different workshops across different media, some under royal patronage.

A remarkably similar design, centred on an eight-pointed star comprising broad bands filled with entwined split-palmettes, resembling the linked loops on our example, can be seen on the illumination of a Qur'an manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, inv.no.Arabe 385, folio 130r, dated 703 AH/1304 AD. The magnificent double-page frontispiece of a Qur’an quarter-section in this sale (lot 9) evinces strikingly similar motifs (see fig.2). A further interesting comparison can be made with the illuminated frontispiece of a Mamluk Qur’an, dated to circa 1370, originally from the mosque of Mustafa Chorbaji Mirza and now in the National Library, Cairo (inv. no. 54.fo.Ir), which attests to the dissemination and re-interpretation of such motifs throughout Western and Central Islamic lands, particularly around the Mediterranean basin. 

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Lot 9 (detail)

Amongst the comparanda in wood, one of the closest examples comes from the Maghrib, notably the minbar in the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh, dated circa 1135-1145 (M., Rosser-Owen, Islamic Arts from Spain, 2010, pp.34-35, no.19.)  Another example is a casket in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv.no.270-1895) with micromosaic decoration composed of a variety of woods and bone. It is similar in shape to our example, with ten rather than eight sides decorated with an interlinked geometric pattern also based on an eight-pointed star.

Also, numerous textiles from Nasrid Spain use the same patterns and combination of motifs, with broad bands forming centrifugal stellar forms entwining to become connected patterns filled with palmettes and other vegetal details; see, for example, a colourful silk lampas in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv.no.1313-1864). Mariam Rosser-Owen notes the basic components that make up this decorative scheme which centre on 'repeats' so that the pattern appears continuous: "Each design unit contains an eight-pointed star, a quatrefoil and two roundels. The compartments they form are filled with a variety of smaller motifs, from interlace patterns in green or blue to tiny knots and fleur-de-lis." (Rosser-Owen 2010, p.48, no.34). These represent “design rules” that are applied across a variety of decorative media which make up the Nasrid canon and are notably present on our pyxis. 

The Form

Whereas examples of interlacing geometric and stellar motifs feature ubiquitously in all decorative media in the Nasrid period, the distinctive straight-walled polygonal shape is less common, though nonetheless typical. The form derives ultimately from the Roman tradition (cf. a Roman enamelled copper hexagonal pyxis in the British Museum) making the form a necessarily Western Islamic one.

The closest Nasrid comparison, also in metalwork, comes from another lidded box, in the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan (inv. no. 3075), also formed of eight vertical walls with a flat cover, but of smaller dimensions with an additional hinged aperture fitted at the centre of the cover indicating that it was probably intended as an inkwell. Four looped lugs fixed equidistant around the sides indicate that it too was originally suspended. The Don Juan box also features interlacing geometric and stellar motifs reminiscent of our pyxis, but has in addition inscriptions finely disguised within the decoration: dawat al-'izza ('inkwell of glory') and tharour Allah ('the necessity of God'), with an undecipherable number, possibly a date (published in El poser de la Alhambra, exhibition catalogue, Arte y Culturas de Al-Andalus, La Alhambra, Palacio de Carlos V, Granada, p.206, no.197). The loops and suspension rings speak of the portable nature of both these objects - accoutrements for a scholar, scribe or person of high rank to be carried when travelling?

A third Nasrid metal vessel that shares stylistic features with our pyxis is a casket previously in a private collection in Kuwait (inv.no.I/195), whose cylindrical body has been altered and adapted at a later date to form an inkwell (see fig.1). The Kuwait casket features inscriptive bands on both its lid and body, with a repetition of the words: al-yumn (good fortune), al-iqbal(prosperity) and al-sa'ada ('happiness'), also of formulaic quality. The design of interlacing arabesques on the rest of the body are drawn summarily with a sketchiness similar to the present example, against a ground of parallel incised lines (Art from the World of Islam, 8th-18th century, Louisiana Revy, volume 27, no.3, March 1987, p.102, no.74).

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fig.1. Nasrid metal vessel, private collection in Kuwait (inv.no.I/195).

A further comparison can be drawn with the inkwell in the Treasury Church of San Marco in Rome, measuring 22cm in height, whose pyriform body rises to a flat cover centred on a small ribbed domical element; attached lugs suggest that the vessel was also originally suspended (see G. Curatola (Ed.), Eredita dell'Islam: Arte Islamica in Italia, Venice, 1994, pp.121-22, no.38). The San Marco inkwell is decorated with a series of four formulaic inscriptions as well as a series of figurative characters, including musicians, courtly figures and a series of real and fantastical quadrupeds. This eclectic mix attests to a trans-Mediterranean Islamic iconography associated notably with Nasrid Spain, Ayyubid/Mamluk Egypt/Syria, and Norman Sicily.

The refined geometrical elements on our casket and the mixture of cursive and Kufic calligraphy harnessed in the service of ornamentation on the San Marco inkwell, are present on a monumental scale on the walls of the Alhambra in Granada, the great architectural set-piece of the Nasrid dynasty. The resultant decorative fusion creates a powerful visual ensemble characteristic of a distinctive court style that was formed and promulgated through craft workshops patronised by the Nasrid ruling house.

The addition of the present casket to the corpus of extant metalwork from Islamic Spain represents an important contribution to our understanding of the stylistic particularities of Nasrid metalwork of the fourteenth century, in particular the use of geometrical and vegetal patterns harmonised as common decorative themes across multiple media. The consistency of this decorative synthesis speaks of a conscious iconographic programme that trumpets the majesty and sovereignty of the Nasrid dynasty. The present casket is a refined and beautiful object which dovetails convincingly into this royal tradition, broadening and deepening our knowledge and appreciation of the richness of the Nasrid artistic legacy.

Sotheby's. Arts of the Islamic World, London, 08 Oct 2014