• 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 39



    Price Realised  


    Of flat rounded form, the hinged lid with a circular loop fixed to a ribbed button in the centre, the pierced decoration casing the body with a band of foliated kufic around repeating al-mulk lillah (the sovereignty is for God) and alternating with medallions of angular palmettes, the lid with radiating lobes with stylized palmettes surrounded by a band of lozenge-shaped medallions and further dotted lines, the underside with similar radiating decoration including medallions with square cross-shaped motif, framed by a band of foliated kufic, the double hinge with trefoil finials, the interior with a crescent-shaped plain lip on the front, small areas of corrosion, minor dents
    7in. (17.8cm.) diam.

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    The flat round cover and the underside of this pierced bronze box find a rather unexpected but close parallel in the design of a number of polycandela whose general shape and decoration derive from earlier Byzantine examples. A large cache found in the Great Mosque at Qairawan revealed seven polycandela datable between the 9th and 11th century, one of which displays a very similar radiating composition with arcades and alternating circular roundels and diamond-shaped elements (Rachel Ward, Islamic Metalwork, London, 1993, fig.51). In his discussion of this relatively small 11th century polycandelon (30cm. diameter), James W. Allan stresses the importance of polycandela which were to "dictate the metalwork form of mosque lighting in western Islam [] for centuries" (James W. Allan, Metalwork of the Islamic World, The Aron Collection, London, 1986, p.18). A group of pierced bronze mosque lamps attributed to Syria, Palestine or Mesopotamia led by an example in the Turk ve Islam Eserleri Musezi dated 1090 and a 12th century mosque lamp in the Louvre offer a parallel to our pierced box. These lamps were made for the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem respectively. Although their decoration is mainly geometric, they are also inscribed with bold angular kufic on foliated ground and the technique of somehow sharp-edged piercing appears to be similar (Dr. Ülker Erginsoy, Islam Maden Sanatinin Gelismesi, Istanbul, 1978, pp.361-5). The lamp in the Louvre has also a band of interlace around the base of the neck which recalls the band of diamond-shaped elements in the present box (Dr. Ülker Erginsoy, op.cit. p.231).

    However, fragments from a group of pierced mosque lamps attributed to 11th century Seljuk Iran also relate to the present box in the flat aspect of the piercing and the stylized vegetal and geometric motifs. This may suggest a geographical attribution further east than the Syrian or Eastern Mediterranean attribution for the present pyx (Dr. Ulker Erginsoy op.cit., p.192-3). A 12th or 13th century carved wooden beam in the Aga Khan Museum is inscribed with a line of kufic equally repeating the inscription of our pyx al-mulk lillah (Spirit & Life, exhibition catalogue, London, 2007, p.191). The Iranian beam shows letters mim which taper to issue a trefoil. On the contrary, the letters mim visible in our kufic inscription remain perfectly rounded although they emit a similar trefoil. This feature, more western in taste than Iranian, supports an attribution to the Eastern Mediterranean.

    An important comparison must be made with a 12th century door knocker in the Louvre attributed to the Jazira of which the loop is composed of repeating confronted lions' and dragons' faces. Looked at in detail, the loop attached to the cover of the present pyx appears to be miniature version of this door knocker. The Jazira, located at the convergence of Syria, Anatolia and Iran have often shown stylistic specificities very distinct from those of the neighboring regions. Although more slightly more stylized than the Louvre example, the door knockers of the Bimaristan of Nur al-Din in Damascus, built in 1154, are of the same type. The possible link with earlier Byzantine prototypes, notably through the polycandela discussed above, point towards an Eastern Mediterranean attribution. They probably abounded in the lands under the Emperor's control from Anatolia to the North African coasts. The repeated motifs of small square crosses pierced on the underside panel may also point toward a Christian context: numerous 12th and 13th century metalwork vessels with Christian scenes are known, specifically from Syria and the Jazira.

    The pierced decoration which covers each side of the box leaves many empty spaces through which the similarly coloured bronze body is now visible. To be fully appreciated the cut design has to be seen against a colourful background which was very possibly obtained by covering the body with a brightly coloured textile or paper. If no contemporary example of such decoration has survived, the later Safavid cut-steel panels on gilt-copper plaques or the leather doublures of good quality Safavid or Ottoman and even Mamluk bindings are good examples of this technique (see lot 110).

    The shape of this pyx is rare, as indicated in the note to a bronze circular box of similar shape from 11th century Egypt published in Trésors fatimides du Caire, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1998, cat.56. The general term of food box used to describe other circular boxes seems inappropriate here and its function is yet to be discovered. If the suggestion of an original coloured decoration is correct, the effect of this pyx must have been astonishing. The link with the Christian and Byzantine backgrounds has to be considered and further identification of the various motifs decorating the pyx ought to lead to some very interesting conclusions. The different features commented here point toward a large attribution to an probable 12th century date and a Near-East or possibly Jazira origin.

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    Formerly UK collection, since the 1980