The carved decoration of the present beam is remarkable and relates to a number of other artworks from Southern Spain and Morocco.
Arabic calligraphy as a decorative motif in Spain and North Africa was used on a variety of media, in small or large scale and with only subtle and gradual changes throughout the centuries. Although each of the Islamic dynasties which have ruled over Spain and Morocco developed their own artistic traditions and styles, there were such strong cross-influences between Spain and Morocco from the 11th to the 15th century that attributing artworks precisely is often challenging, particularly when the dating is solely based on stylistic ground. Of all the works of art that produced in the Western Islamic world during the mediaeval period, wood carvings are probably the most difficult pieces to date precisely. However, looking at the calligraphy and the floral decoration will help us support our attribution of this impressive beam to the 12th or 13th century.
The artist responsible for this calligraphic inscription used a particularly elegant style, making the best use of the long upstrokes and angles provided by the kufic letters. A source of inspiration might have been the flamboyant inscription on the first half 11th century Zirid maqsura (fence) of the Great Mosque in Qayrawan. Entirely carved in wood, the upper register offers a very good comparable example to our beam, particularly the knotted waw tails which recall the kaf upstrokes. Another related examples of knotted kufic is offered by a large unglazed pottery jar in the archaeological museum, Seville. The calligraphic decoration is arranged in registers, with upstrokes of the letter kaf bent repeated times before and after a large square knot. The vase is dated to the 12th or 13th century. The stucco decoration of the Merinid Madrasa al-Sahrij in Fes shows that the style was still very much used in Morocco at the beginning of the 14th century (before 1321; Derek Hill, Lucien Golvin, Islamic Architecture in North Africa, London, 1976, ill.331). Other Merinid works offer good companion pieces to the present work: a calligraphic beam purportedly brought from Ceuta to Seville is decorated with a related benedictory inscription, in foliated and knotted kufic (Ibn Khaldun, the Mediterranean in the 14th century, exhibition catalogue, Seville, 2006, p.242). It appears to come from the Madrasa al-Yadida in Ceuta, which was built in 1346-48. The carving of our beam however is more intricate yet very subtle, with re-carved palmettes and complicated upstroke knots – which might suggest an earlier dating.
A carved beam from Fes, dated to the 13th century in the Musée des Arts et Traditions is the best companion piece (Yannick Lintz, Claire Delery, Bulle Tuil Leonetti (dir.), Le Maroc médiéval, Paris, 2014, cat.270, p.445). Its decoration already prefigures the Merinid and Nasrid aesthetic of the 13th to 15th century rather than belonging to the earlier, simpler and less profuse style of the Almoravid and Almohad periods. It appears that our beam was probably carved shortly before the Fes beam or is contemporaneous to it at latest.
In a similar fashion, the vegetal decoration is found on a large variety of media. The long six-petalled palmette sprouting from a split bud (visible at the left extremity of the first calligraphic cartouche) is a motif that is already visible in 10th century Umayyad works of art, although simpler and more stylized; see for instance two marble panels from Madina al-Zahra and from Baena in the Archaeological Museum, Cordoba (Jerrilynn D. Dodds (ed.), Al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic Spain, New York, cat.35, p.242). It appears again on a 12th century Almohad silk and gold thread woven textile, used as a cover for the Coffin of Maria de Almenar (Museo de Telas Medievales, Dodds, op.cit., cat.91, pp.325-326). Variations also appear on the celebrated group of Spanish ivories or on marble column capitals from the Taifa period (11th century); these are very close to those found on the beam.
The exact origin of this beam and the building for which it was made will very probably remain unknown. However it is possible that it decorated a large room in a madrasa, as in the Madrasa al-Yadida in Ceuta. It remains one of the largest and most impressive pieces of calligraphy to have survived from this period. Its size, coupled with its good condition, makes it a remarkable survival from this dynamic period of creation in the Islamic West.
A number of other beams from Islamic Spain and north Africa have been sold at Christie’s (23 April 2002, lot 135, 15 October 2002, lot 33, 29 April 2003, lot 50, 12 October 2004, lot 12) including an important figural beam, sold 8 April 2008, lot 39 and five beams from the Umayyad mosque-cathedral of Cordoba, sold 7 October 2008, lots 91-95.