The present lot is very closely related to a bronze stag, 61.6cm. high, found in the ruins of the palace of Madinat al-Zahra' near Cordoba, now in the Cordoba museum (Dodds, J.D.: al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic Spain, New York, 1992, pp. 210-11). Both animals are cast in the same way with an open mouth to allow water to flow out, and an inlet pipe running up from below the base. Both animals are covered with an incised design of roundels enclosing sylised palmettes, though these are of slightly different form. The surface design reflects the influence of textiles, an industry which was particularly well developed in Umayyad Spain at this time. Both sculptures also have the same central roundel in the middle of the chest. The Cordoba stag has small holes in front of its ears for horns or antlers, now missing. This leads us to believe that the present lot is the companion piece and represents the hind.
Animal sculpture was often placed at ornamental pools within palaces in the Spain of this period, and remained a feature of garden sculpture. The 16th century historian of Muslim Spain, al-Maqqari, describes marble basins with elaborate spouts at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra'. One of these was surrounded by twelve gold animal sculptures which spewed water from their mouths (Dodds, J.D. ed.: al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic Spain, New York, 1992, p. 45-6) . The 14th century Nasrid Court of Lions at the Alhambra in Granada gives an idea of this.
The period AD 936 - 1010 was the golden age of Umayyad Spain. The palace city of Madinat al-Zahra', capital of the Caliphate, was begun in 936 under Abd al-Rahman III. We have a picture of the palace from the writings of al-Maqqari, in its heyday with its gardens and pools. However, it was sacked and destroyed in 1010, during the civil war which led to the fall of the Caliphate. It is likely then that this sculpture was produced at some time during the second half of the 10th century.
A number of other pieces of animal sculpture attributed to mediaeval Spain are known, though of slightly later date. A deer of the 11th century in the Bargello Museum, Florence has incised vegetal decoration and a benedictory inscription. It also bears vegetal motifs within teardrop motifs on its joints. This latter feature it shares with the two largest pieces of Western mediaeval Islamic bronze sculpture, the Pisa Griffin, and the lion sold in these rooms, 19 October 1993, lot 293.
The present lot, along with the Cordoba stag and another smaller stag in the Museo Arqueologico in Madrid share similar facial features, simple bodies and fairly rigid stance, and are covered with an overall incised design of vegetal ornament. Both the present lot and the Cordoba stag have a central roundel on the breast, oval shaped eyes and delicately cast mouth and nostrils. In its decoration and proportions however the present piece is far more delicately conceived than the other two. The refinement of the arabesques is however remarkably close to that of those on the drop-shaped haunch panels surrounding engraved animals on the lion sold in these Rooms 19 October 1993, lot 293, and on its companion piece, the Pisa Griffin.
The metallurgical analysis mentioned below shows up a number of interesting features, most notable of which is the remarkably pure copper content of the bronze. It contains no lead and only very small quantities of tin and zinc. This is very much at variance with the normal proportions found in Islamic bronzes. It is however very similar to the results from the Pisa Griffin and the Christie's Lion, both of which have been tested at the same laboratory. This would imply the same metalworking technology for the three pieces and provide a stronger tie with Spain, assuming that the Cordoba stag tested similarly to the present sculpture. Apart from current practise, the only reason for having an absence of lead would be if the sculpture was intended to be gilded. There is a strange panel on the front right haunch proper which suggests the possibility of gilding. This would of course fit beautifully into the report by al-Maqqari noted above. The absence however of any visible trace of gilding in any crevices and points which would not have received any wear means it is more likely to be an unusual area of patination.
The hind appears to be cast in one piece, possibly by the lost-wax method. The lower plate and pipe were cast separately. It is possible that there is a core still remaining inside the sculpture, which would account for the extreme weight of the piece. The interior of the lion showed evidence of considerable amounts of relatively loose-running bronze on the interior, without the normal appearance of a core. It may be that the same method was used here which could also explain the great weight. That the piece was used as a fountain is attested by the corrosion pattern at the base of the downpipe, which is consistent with long contact with water. The size of the hind's mouth would mean considerable water pressure would have been required through the four legs to ensure the liquid emerged in a respectable spout.
There has been considerable research performed on the Lion and Griffin since the Christie's sale, which has led to stronger evidence in favour of a South Italian provenance for these two pieces. The appearance of the present bronze, with its near matching analysis and its indubitable stylistic link to the Cordoba stag, reinforces the probability of a Spanish origin for the entire group.
A metallurgical analysis of this sculpture, performed by Dr Peter Northover of the Department of Materials, Oxford, sample nos.R1075-79, confirms the proposed dating.