A number of beams from Islamic Spain have been published, but all that have appeared to date are either decorated with inscriptions or vegetal motifs. Some have been sold in these Rooms which show both features, or combinations of them (23 April 2002, lot 135, 15 October 2002, lot 33, 29 April 2003, lot 50, 12 October 2004, lot 12). The present beam is remarkable in its figural decoration and the way it relates to the smaller carved panels of the period, notably those in ivory and stone.
The beam is incomplete on the right hand side. It would originally have been longer, and would, we can assume, have been finished on that side in the same way as on the left. From the left scrolls out a cusped arch in whose spandrel is a harpy with long neck. To the right of that stands a man blowing an oliphant. At that point the arcade begins; each triple arch contains a figural scene. These are, in succession: a running deer, its head turned backwards over its back; a man blowing on a pipe while a hound chases a boar at his feet; a lion on the back of a bull, biting down; a huntsman running with his hound. Each of these can be paralleled in Spanish carving of the late 10th and 11th century. All are depictions of aspects of the hunt, a theme that is frequently encountered in other media. The ivory casket in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos dating from 1140-1150 depicts lions on the back of bulls (El Esplendor de los Omeyas cordobeses, exhibition catalogue, Cordoba, 2001, pp.256-7). Similar deer are found on the Palencia casket dating from 1049-50 and made in Cuenca, also in places set under triple arched panels. The sides of that casket show huntsmen wearing similar tunics and round hats (Jerrilynn D. Dodds, Al Andalus, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1992, no.7, pp.204-6 among other publications). Hunting scenes are a feature of the Jativa marble basin including figures with hounds at their feet (Dodds, op.cit, pp.261-3). A number of ivory pyxes are also carved with similar depictions. An extensively illustrated discussion of related ivories is to be found in The Journal of the David Collection, Copenhagen, 2005, vols.2,1 and 2,2.
What we see now in general is the carved wooden surface. Some areas however show that the carved work was enhanced with gesso detailing before it was finally painted in polychrome. One element of this extra decoration, that can be seen at the left hand side, is that the strapwork of differing widths that forms all the arches was originally applied with roundels, making the similarity of the composition to the ivory carvings even more marked. Careful restoration should both bring this out and enable some of the original colour in the paintwork to show again after centuries.
One of the articles in the David Collection journal discusses the Umayyad Syrian and Mesopotamian antecedents of the style found here and in the ivories, linking it to the great architectural assemblages such as the Palace of Mshatta. In the same way that this links backwards, there is an interesting final echo in a Mozarabic interior in the Alcazar in Seville dating from the mid 14th century. There in the stucco work one can find similar elements of the hunt, a peacock in a spandrel, and combat groups set against a scrolling leafy ground. By that stage however the general absence of human depiction means that even in this Christian context the figures are only depictred as silhouettes, in stark contrast to the liveliness of the three-dimensional figures seen on ivory boxes and in the present beam.