• Art of the Islamic and Indian  auction at Christies

    Sale 7843

    Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds

    13 April 2010, London, King Street

  • Lot 53

    A FATIMID ROCK CRYSTAL MOLAR FLASK

    EGYPT, 11TH CENTURY

    Price Realised  

    A FATIMID ROCK CRYSTAL MOLAR FLASK
    EGYPT, 11TH CENTURY
    The body of cuboid form extending below the four lower corners into long pointed feet tapering towards the ends, the faceted cylindrical neck rising through pronounced collar to slightly everted rim, each corner of the body carved with mirrored drop shapes containing paired chevrons, each side between these with a further similar drop shape, small chips
    2 7/8in. (7.1cm.) high


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    According to the Egyptian historian Ahmad al-Maqrizi (d. 1442) who wrote a History of the Fatimids, the treasury of the Fatimid Caliphs must have included not less than 17,000 objects made of rock crystal (Anna Contadini, Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1998, p.28). The Kitab al-Dhakha'ir wa al-Tuhaf (The Book of Gifts and Rarities) of Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 1167), a jurist who probably held an official post in the royal Fatimid treasury on which Maqrizi bases his historical account, mentioned some 36,000 examples of cut glass and rock crystal. This number is probably exaggerated as rock crystal carvings are today amongst the rarest Islamic vessels and only around 180 of any size that were made in the Islamic world between the eighth and eleventh centuries appear to be recorded as having survived. A great number of these are attributed to Fatimid Egypt; an attribution confirmed by Nasir Khusraw (d. 1088), a Persian traveller who visited Cairo between 1046 and 1052 who describes rock crystal being carved in the Lamp Market in Cairo (B.W.Robinson et al., Islamic Art in the Keir Collection, London, 1988, p. 289).

    However, the pillage of the treasury of the Fatimids between 1061 and 1069 in a period of grave social disturbance and bankrupting of the Fatimid state put an end to the great period of creation that had flourished with the dynasty. It also enabled the dispersal outside Egypt of these marvelled rock crystal pieces and many, such as flasks similar to this one, came to Europe in the middle ages. A great number of them can be found in the treasuries of churches used in reliquaries as in the cathedral of Halberstadt and in the Stiftskirchengemeinde in Bad-Gandersheim (Europa und der Orient, Exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 1989, no, pl.636).

    Molar flasks, of which most examples are in glass, are amongst the most common perfume bottles of the early Islamic period. In his discussion of this group, Stefano Carboni indicates that the form originates in Egypt and was probably dictated by functional and practical reasons rather than solely aesthetics (Stefano Carboni, Glass from Islamic Lands, London, 2001, p.99). The present flask is copied from glass examples. However, it is the rock crystal from which it is carved that gives to this common object its purported prophylactic properties. These qualities of rock crystal are mentioned in the Qur'an (Qur'an XXXVII, sura al-saffat, vv.45-7) as well as elsewhere. According to the Persian polymath Qazwini (d. 1283), rock crystal vessels were used by kings for their magical properties; there is no doubt that the present molar flask was carved for a princely patron.

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