There are around 180 rock crystal carvings that were made in the Islamic World between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Of these a few, mostly personal ornaments, have been attributed to Persia where there was a well established tradition of carving in crystal. The greatest number, however, were made in Mesopotamia and Egypt. And it was in Egypt too, where there was an ancient tradition of hardstone carving, the craft was fully realised with the mastery of crystal carving in relief about the second half of the tenth century. Until then the predominant style of carving was the so-called bevelled technique in which the decorative elements were separated one from the other by slanting cuts so that compositions were linear with no background. A bottle of this type of decoration was excavated at Wasit (Erdmann, Kurt, Neue Islamische Bergkristalle, in: Ars Orientalis III, 1959, pp.200-205, abteilung 4).
The first attempts at relief carving were made in the small ampulla or scent bottles such as the present lot. Vegetal decoration in the bevelled style was replaced by the relief technique which allowed for greater precision of outline against a smooth and polished ground. This development was probably brought about by the desire for some of these bottles to carry inscriptions in Arabic characters bearing greetings or good wishes which would not have been possible in the previous style. The present lot is a fine example of the development of relief carving in the second half of the tenth century. The single leaf ornament framed by a notched line, four times repeated and presented in a reciprocal arrangement anticipates that of the great Islamic rock crystal ewers of the early 11th century. Decoratively, the heart-shaped engraved design is a very pleasing feature that gives a sense of intimacy to this rather personal object. Another closely related flask with similar heart-shaped carving is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Contadini, Anna: Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1998, pl.4).
The admiration for these small ampullae traveled far outside the Middle East. Many examples are to be found in Europe and were used in medieval churches as reliquaries. The relative strength of the material and its transparent qualities made these vessels ideal for the honoured position as containers for the some of the most valued and worshiped articles in the medieval Church. Examples can be found in the treasuries of the cathedral of Halberstadt and in the Stiftskirchengemeinde in Bad-Gandersheim (Europa und der Orient, Exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 1989, no, pl.636).