A MAMLUK LACQUERED WOODEN CYLINDRICAL BOX

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A MAMLUK LACQUERED WOODEN CYLINDRICAL BOX
EGYPT OR SYRIA, 14TH/15TH CENTURY

With flat base and slightly sloping sides, the upper edge with slight recess to fit a lid, the exterior wooden surface overlaid in a succession of black, red, yellow and green lacquers then carved through to reveal a polychrome design, the broad central band with lobed rectangular panels containing scrolling arabesques around quatrefoil roundels, the borders of the panels entwining and continuing into lobed concentric quatrefoils dividing each panel, a band below of stylised thuluth calligraphy interrupted by roundels containing quatrefoil panels, the base and interior plain with remains of monochrome lacquer, rubbed in places, repaired cracks, small areas of removable deposit
10in. (25.3cm.) diam.; 6¾in. (17.2cm.) high

Lot Essay

While later Islamic lacquer has been studied extensively, the history of the technique in early Islamic times is still obscure. A few items have survived, both in Egypt and Iran, made of wood with lacquered surfaces, but together they do not paint a full picture. A wooden plate in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Watson,O.,'An Islamic lacquered dish', in Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond, London, 1981, pp.232-246) was said to have been found in Fustat. A wooden bowl and cover were found in a fourteenth century context at Qus in Egypt (Watson, op.cit., p.241, note 14). Fragments of painted and varnished wooden objects were found in the excavations of the Mamluk site of Qusair al-Qadim (Wheelan, Estelle J.,'Unusual Islamic Finds', in Qusair al-Qadim 1978, Preliminary Report, Cairo, 1978, pp.206-7). In Persia a small fragment was found during the excavations at Ghubayra which has been given a thirteenth century attribution (Fehérvári, G.,'Near Eastern Lacquerwork: History and Early Guidance', in Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond, London, 1981, pp.225-231). A further fragmentary dish with a kufic inscription border is in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

All these fragments have in common that they are covered with layers of coloured varnish which have subsequently been carved through to reveal a polychrome design. The commonly found colours are green, yellow, cream, red and black. It has been argued that these objects give evidence for a quasi-lacquer production that developed independantly of China where the technique is thought to have originated. The technique of decoration of our box is in the same tradition and would point to an attribution to 14th or 15th century Mamluk Egypt indicated by the finds from Qusair al-Qadim.

The shape of our object has counterparts in other items from Mamluk Egypt. A group of round boxes with straight (although lower) sides was found in Qusair al-Qadim (Qusair al-Qadim, nos.k and n). The porportions in the present box are far closer to those of smaller ivory boxes, all of which have a similar ridge for the cover, one of which bears the name of Sultan Salih (1351-54 AD), (discussed in Atil, E.: Renaissance of Islam, Art of the Mamluks, Washington D.C., 1982, pp.210-211). Given the possible Chinese origins of the technique it is certainly relevant that there exist a number of 15th century cylindrical lidded boxes from China, decorated in a Chinese manner with peony scrolls and phoenixes (Garner, Sir H.: Chinese lacquer, London, 1979, figs.129 and 114-5).

The decoration on the present box is difficult precisely to parallel. The compartmentalisation however, with intertwined outlining bands and cartouches is very much in the Mamluk fashion and can be observed on metalwork as well as on manuscript illumination. The elongated hastae of the naskh inscription are also a trademark of Mamluk calligraphy. All these factors confirm a Mamluk fourteenth or fifteenth century origin for this extremely rare object.
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