• Art of the Islamic and Indian  auction at Christies

    Sale 7751

    Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds

    6 October 2009, London, King Street

  • Lot 52



    Price Realised  


    The staff composed of eight ivory pieces held together by a metal rod through the center, the shaft of three cylindrical elements with two spheres above and below, the staff terminating in a conical element and a ring at top and a small ivory ball at bottom, the decoration in registers alternating elements with a deeply carved lattice of four-pointed stars and small dotted roundels above and below with bands of carved inscriptions in elegant thuluth on dotted ground within carved lines, the conical terminal with a ring of geometrical interlace and a small domical and engraved metal element above to maintain the ivory elements on the rod, remains of black paste, rubbing, minor splits, ball at bottom a later replacement, elements probably reassembled
    16in. (40.6cm.) long

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    The inscriptions around the terminal read (repeated around the shaft) al-'izz fi al-dunia bi al-mal wa al-akhira bi al-a'mal (Might in this world comes from wealth and in the next with deeds). This phrase is recorded as a Prophet's saying.

    This ivory baton, most likely to be a sovereign insignia such a baton of command or a sceptre, is a unique example of an item known in the literary sources but from which no known examples have remained. It is possible to refer to three different traditions to which the Mamluk have been exposed: the Egyptian Fatimid tradition, the influence of the European crusaders and the Turco-Mongol substrate, all of which gave to sceptres or batons of command a central piece in the Royal protocol and iconography.

    The historians Ibn Zubayr (d. 1167 AD) and Al-Maqrizi (d. 1441), whose descriptions of the Fatimid period are very precise, tell us about Fatimid protocol and the insignia of the caliph: the crown, the parasol and the sceptre (Trésors fatimides du Caire, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1998, p. 96-97). The procession of the caliph to the Friday mosque was the occasion to show them off to the people (Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo, an introduction, London, 1992, p. 65). It is thus evident that sceptres were part of the Islamic court ceremonial, at least since the Fatimid period if not earlier. The royal iconography used in the neighboring Frankish kingdoms, where representations of kings and emperors holding sceptres and mains de justice were common, was very probably a source of inspiration for the rulers of Egypt. Scenes like the depiction of the coronation of Baudouin I, King of Jerusalem, holding a large sceptre, in a manuscript copied in Acre around 1287 were undoubtedly accessible to the Mamluks in late 13th century Near-East (L'Orient de Saladin, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2001, p. 65). The third tradition to which we could refer is purely military and could be linked to a Turco-Mongol background brought to the Near-East in the mediaeval period. Chronicles from the life of Gengis Khan mention a baton of command which he held during the charge (The Mongol Art of War: Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Military System, The Journal of Military History, Vol.71, No 4, October 2007, pp. 1223-1224). The Mamluks, who were of Central-Asian origin and winner against the Mongol armies in Ain Jalut in 1260, must have known and probably used batons after their assumption to power. In fact, in a tremendously militarized state such as Mamluk Egypt, emirs must have carried marshall batons with them as the Encyclopaedia of Islam suggests (M. Th. Houtsma et al.,, op. cit., Leyden, 1927, art. Egypt).

    It has not been possible to find a depiction of this exact baton in contemporary metalwork or painting which may indicate that it was part of a larger object, probably a mace, which is much more common in royal representations. The question of the baton being complete or incomplete appears to be secondary: other combinations of the ivory tubes and spheres could of course be proposed although the actual form appears the most natural.

    On enthronement scenes however, kings are almost invariably represented with the cup and often with the mappa in their hands as in the opening folio from a Mamluk copy of the Maqamat dated 1334 in the National Library in Vienna (Gaston Migeon, manuel d'art musulman, Paris, 1927, fig. 14). Interestingly, an early 14th Fars candlestick now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows an enthronement scene with two attendents clearly bearing ceremonial maces (A.S. Melikian-Chirvani, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World, London, 1982, p.197).

    A very interesting comparable has been found in Spain. It is the baton of the Cardinal Cisneros (Leopoldo Torres Balbas, Ars Hispaniae, Vol. IV, fig. 246, p. 223-26). It shows bone-inlaid ebony spherical and tubular elements fixed on a 1.47m. long metal shaft. The baton is dated to the middle of the 14th century and the overall aspect is similar to our example. It is inscribed with the Nasrid 'motto' la ghalib illa Allah and, according to Torres Balbas, decorated 'in the Granada style'.
    Stylistically, our baton can be associated to a group of eleven ivory pixes with openword decoration, attributed to 14th century Egypt or Spain, which has been fully discussed by Stefano Carboni (Journal of the David Collection, Copenhagen, 2005, Vol. 2,2, p. 215-25) and Angel Galan y Galindo (Marfiles medievales des Islam, Cordoba, 2005, p. 154-72). The decorative scheme and the technique of carving are so similar that the present baton will cast a new light on the study of the group. All but one present a central band with a dense openwork geometrical lattice with four-petalled rosettes and small diamond-shaped crosses between, with thuluth calligraphic lines above and below on ring punched ground with remains of black inlay.
    One of the boxes, whose only known owner was Edmund de Rothschild, was illustrated by Gaston Migeon in 1903. The incribed band around its lid clearly bears the name 'Al-Malik al-Salih', identified by Migeon as al-Malik al-Salih Salih (r. 1351-54). There is no reason to doubt of the Mamluk origin of the box (Stefano Carboni, op. cit., p. 216). A Nasrid attribution has been proposed for other boxes, mostly on the basis of the presence in the inscriptions around the body of the Nasrid motto, but an Egyptian attribution with a date of circa 1350-75 seems more likely for most of the examples of the group.

    The nature of the inscriptions is also striking by the fact that they generally stand out from the usual suite of royal titulature and have a rhetoric closer to that of poetry and proverbs. The inscription around a box in the treasure of the cathedral of Sens begins with the same verse that is found on the present baton although it goes on further as a larger space was available (Angel Galan y Galindo, op. cit., p. 165). The thuluth inscription of this baton is probably the finest of all found on the pixes, for the possible reason that the calligraphy disposes here of a larger space. Most of the pyxes are of small size (about 10cm. high), and the only large example, a box exhibited in Ryadh in 1985 which is 23.7cm high, still displays a very cursory thuluth.

    There is no doubt that this ivory baton raises many questions as to its original function. The remarkable quality of the carving and the unusually large size of the baton are undoubtedly the characteristics of a luxurious object made for a royal patron; a suggestion confirmed by the inscription on the box of Edmond de Rothschild. A European engraving illustrating The Pilgrimage of Arnold bon Harff, the account of a German knight traveling to Jerusalem in the second half of the 14th century, shows Sultan Qaitbay seated on his throne holding a sceptre (Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Cairo of the Mamluks, London, 2007, p. 33, fig. 3). This depiction of an enthroned Mamluk Sultan is certainly distorted by a European tropism of both the traveller and the illustrator, but it confirms our suggestions. This baton was an insignia of prestige for a deserving emir elevated to an important honorific charge or possibly for the sultan himself.

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