This exquisitely carved mosaic panel demonstrates the highest level of craftsmanship of the Safavid period. The depth and fineness of the carving on this panel is reminiscent of the work on the carved wooden box of Ulugh Beg ibn Shahrukh, which is dated circa 1420-49 (published Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, Los Angeles, 1989, no.49, p.142) or the panels from the doors of the Gur-i-Mir, Samarqand, circa 1405 (Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, Oxford, 1938, p.1470). Like ours both of those examples have borders of marquetry mosaic (khatamkar) surrounding the wood. Khatamkar consists of minute polygons of wood, ivory and metal. The polygonal elements, known as beads, are formed into rods which are glued together and then sliced. It is a technique that is said to have been practiced in the fourteenth century but by the Safavid period it was well established in both Isfahan and Shiraz and the work had generally become much finer (L. Honarfa, 'Woodwork, khatamkar' in J. Gluck, A Survey of Persian Handicrafts, Tehran, 1977). James Allan writes that Shah Isma'il I (r.1502-1524) was evidently particularly fond of this type of work, and a number of cenotaphs - such as those he commissioned for the tombs of the Imams Musa al-Kazim and Muhammad al-Jawad in Kazimain, made by his order in 1519, employ the technique (James W. Allan, The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi'ism: Iraq, Iran and the Indian Sub-Continent, Oxford, 2012, p.91).
The wooden cenotaph of Shah Isma'il himself in Ardabil provides a close comparable to our panel here, with similar polygonal panels deeply carved with elegant arabesques worked into a geometric lattice. James Allan comments on the colour impact that the cenotaph would have had. Like our panel it employs different qualities and colours of wood, ivory, bone and different metals as the inlays. In addition to the playful use of different materials, the openwork panels were laid down on backing that was painted in polychrome - in the cenotaph those behind the calligraphic panels were green and those behind the arabesques, pink (Allan, op.cit., p.93). There are remains of both green and pink polychromy visible behind the arabesques on our panel, which would have made the fine scrolling tendrils and split palmettes leap out at the viewer.
Previously little studied - in part because it is crowded into a small chamber and difficult to access, the cenotaph of Shah Isma'il has recently been published by Richard Hillenbrand (Sheila Canby (ed.), 'The Tomb of Shah Isma'il at Ardabil', Safavid Art and Architecture, London, 2002, pp.3-8). Each area of the cenotaph forms a geometric design focusing on one or more large star patterns, like our panel (Jon Thompson and Sheila R. Canby, Hunt For Paradise. Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576, New York and Milan, 2003, no.8.27, p.235).
The very fine arabesques, which retain their elegance even when photographed as closely as they are in the image above, relate to those used in contemporaneous manuscript illumination. The illumination of Shaykhzade for instance, on a Bustan of Sa'di attributed to circa 1528, employs a similar repertoire of motifs executed on a similarly fine scale (Abolala Soudavar, Art of the Persian Courts. Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection, New York, 1992, cats. 73-75, pp.189-197). When one considers that our arabesques are worked into wood, as opposed to fashioned with pen and ink, the skill involved in producing them is really remarkable.