Ivory Pyxis

Ivory Pyxis

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Rare Finds

The ivory pyxis is one of the rarest finds in the history of Minoan archaeology. Dated to the LM IB period, it depicts a Minoan religious scene showing the epiphany of the Minoan Goddess sitting beneath an olive tree shrine, extending a lily to an approaching individual, possibly a male ancestor figure who in turn leads another male and two females, potentially priestesses who both wear flounced skirts. Within the pyxis, eighty amethyst beads accompanied an assortment of carnelian, lapis lazuli, and glass paste beads that made up at least two necklaces.

For publication see J.S. Soles. 2016. “Hero, Goddess, Priestess: New Evidence for Minoan Religion and Social Organization,” in E. Alram-Stern, F. Blakolmer, S. Deger-Jalkotzy, R. Laffineur and J. Weilhartner, eds., METAPHYSIS, Ritual, Myth and Symbolism in the Aegean Bronze Age, Aegaeum 39(Proceedings of the 15th International Aegean Conference ), Leuven-Liège, pp. 249-251.

The article can be accessed HERE.

Situla of the Pania

The Situla of the Pania is an ivory situla or pyxis from the end of the seventh century BC, found in the Tomb of the Pania in Chiusi and conserved in the Museo archeologico nazionale di Firenze.

The work is one of the most important examples of Etruscan ivory work - there are only two other examples, one from Chiusi and one from Cerveteri. It is composed of a hollow cylinder (22 cm high) and decorated with horizontal friezes, separated by small bands carved with plant motifs (interweaved palmettes and lotus flowers). Two medium-sized bands at the top and bottom are decorated with more lotus flowers.

The upper frieze shows two myths from the Odyssey, split by a sphinx: the encounter with Scylla (who looks a lot like a hydra) and the escape from the cyclops Polyphemus. The second frieze shows common motifs of departure for war, followed by hoplites performing a salute and weeping women (with long braids and their arms over their chests). After that there is a warrior without his shield performing a funerary dance and a horseman. The third band is decorated with beasts and monsters, employing eastern motifs. On the final band there are further imaginary animals.

The style of the situla is less monumental than ivories of the previous period, but more lively.

This cylindrical carved box was commissioned by the Umayyad caliph Al-Hakam II in 964 CE for Subh, his concubine, and the mother of the princes Abd al-Rahman and Hishâm and is linked to the palatine ivory workshops of Madinat al-Zahra. [1] It was intended to hold cosmetics, jewelry, or perfume containers. This portable piece represents the sophistication of the ruling class during the Caliphate of Cordoba. During this period, the Umayyads in Spain, or the al-Andalus, were both competing with the Abbasid society in Baghdad, [2] and attempting to reclaim the power that they held from Damascus during the Umayyad period. [3] In Cordoba, the Umayyads commissioned notable architectural developments and luxury goods, including textiles and ivory carvings, such as this pyxis, the Pyxis of Zamora. The iconography found within the carvings on the surfaces of many of the pyxides created during this period reinforced the ideas of the Umayyad political superiority over the Abbasids. [4] This object, created in the flourishing intellectual city center of Cordoba during the peak of Hispano-Umayyad art demonstrates the refinement of the Cordoba Caliphate. [5]

Ivory carving was a widespread practice in the Mediterranean world, beginning before the time of the Roman empire. [6] Ivory was expensive due to the distance between sub-sahara Africa and India, where elephant tusk was procured, and the Mediterranean, [7] where it was carved. The Umayyad Caliphate brought the pyxis carving tradition to Spain as they took control of the peninsula in the 8th century AD. [8] There is no evidence of Ivory box or pyxides carvings in Spain before Umayyad rule. [9]

The quality of the craft of pyxides was vital due to the expense of ivory. Among Islamic, Christian, and Roman carvings, a sign of good workmanship was a lack of tool marks. [10] The carving of small objects such as pyxides took precision and time which also added to the overall price. [11] The Pyxis of Zamora displays this quality of work through the deep-relief interlacing pattern and the lack of any visible tool marks. These carving techniques are seen in other pyxides created in the same period, such as the Pyxis of al-Mughira. The price and rarity of pyxides made them accessible only to the royal class. [12]

Cylindrical pyxides, such as the Pyxis of Zamora, were created using the natural curvature and hollowness of the thickest part of the elephant tusk. [13] Cylindrical pyxides were less prone to warping than rectangular boxes because of the preserved strength of the tusk in a circular shape. [14] The unbroken surface of the Pyxis of Zamora allowed for unified compositional decoration without edges in the ivory. [15] The interlacing effect of the decoration, in conjunction with the Arabic inscription on the lid (detailing the patronage and gifting of the pyxis), [16] indicated that the receiver of the pyxis was meant to turn the object around in their hands to fully appreciate the craftsmanship. The decoration of the Pyxis of Zamora also encouraged the viewer to open [17] the container since the expensive exterior mirrored the precious material held inside (often perfume or jewels). [18]

The Winged Motif Edit

The Pyxis of Zamora features many depictions of spread wings within its arabesque decoration. The winged motif gained popularity during its use in Sasanian culture. Extended wings symbolized power and religion, as the motif was often seen on the crowns of Sasanian kings as well as on Sasanian seals. [19] This Sasanian trend later influenced the royal decorative arts of the Umayyad period, resulting in the repeated use of the winged motif on luxury goods. [20]

The Peacock Edit

The image of the peacock is repeated four times in the central section of the Pyxis of Zamora. In the context of medieval Islam, peacocks were viewed as having apotropaic powers. This view was the result of varying Islamic beliefs of the bird. Some Islamic interpreters believed the peacock mated asexually, thus associating the bird with purity. There were other interpretations from Arabic naturalists, who believed peacocks could detect poison. This led to the common medicinal use of peacock feathers. Popular legends told of the bird's ability to kill snakes, religiously alluding to the peacock's ability to avert the evil influences of the devil. This gave the bird a connection to the Islamic conception of Paradise. The peacock continued to be an important image in the Islamic world, as feathers or images of peacocks were often used in a royal context in imitation of Persian traditions. [21]

The Gazelle Edit

Several images of the gazelle surround the peacocks depicted on the Pyxis of Zamora. This history of the meaning of the gazelle began in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, in which the gazelle was often depicted as having magical qualities. The slender bodies and wide eyes of gazelles alluded them to women. [22] Later Umayyads continued to associate gazelles with femininity and elegance. They were viewed as seductive and swift prey and were often celebrated by hunters. [23]


The 2010 Greek-American excavation at Mochlos was carried out during the months of June, July and August. Its main goal was to reveal earlier settlement remains, particularly Prepalatial remains lying beneath the Neopalatial settlement on the site, in order to answer questions about state formation. To reach these remains at Mochlos, however, it is necessary to dig through multiple layers of later occupation: Hellenistic, Mycenaean, Neopalatial and Protopalatial, all of which are stacked on top of each other (Soles, Kentro 12, 2009, fig. 1). While digging through the Hellenistic levels at the western side of the site, in the area Richard Seager identified as Block A in his 1908 excavation (designated as Area 4 in this year’s excavation), the project made a spectacular and wholly unexpected discovery. A large Hellenistic building, which appears to have been used as a public dining facility, was located here lying just below surface. In 2004 the project excavated its kitchen and found a coin of P. Canidius Crassus lying on its floor (Soles and Davaras, Kentro 8, 2005, 11, fig. 2). Dating to 34-32 BC, it provides a good date for the end of the Hellenistic occupation at Mochlos. This year we
excavated the building’s dining room, and then digging beneath this room we encountered wall collapse of a LM IB building on top of which the Hellenistic building sat. The remains of an ivory pyxis (Fig. 1) and ten ivory hair pins lay inside this wall collapse. They originally sat on an upper floor of the Minoan building along its eastern wall facade, and when this wall collapsed at the time of the LM IB destruction, they fell with the wall into a basement room located beneath. They were broken in the collapse and the ivory pyxis also showed traces of burning, but many pieces survived, and Stephie Chlouveraki, Chief Conservator of the INSTAP Study Center, was able to do an excellent job reconstructing the pyxis and the pins.

The pyxis was a rectangular box with its sides and lid made of elephant ivory and its base made of wood. Its lid measures ca. 0.11 by 0.14 m. and was designed to be lifted on and off the box below. The side panels were carved in low relief with a seascape while the lid was carved with a scene showing the epiphany of the Minoan Goddess. It is a well-known scene shown on many contemporary gold signet rings, including the Ring of Minos, where the goddess appears twice, both descending from the sky and then seated after her arrival (Dimopoulou and Rethemiotakis 2004). It resembles other depictions, including the fresco of crocus gatherers from Xeste 3 at Akrotiri, in that the scene is set on a stage supported by incurved altars. As C. Palyvou has recently noted (2006), this was a prefabricated stage that could be assembled, disassembled and moved around. It was used for the performance of religious spectacles, like the one depicted in Xeste 3 or the one on the Mochlos pyxis. On the pyxis the goddess sits enthroned beneath a tree shrine and appears to hold a lily in her left hand. A procession of four figures approaches her from the right, two men and two women. The figure of the goddess survives virtually intact, but unfortunately, the upper part of the figures to the right was lost during the building’s destruction, so it is unclear exactly who they are or what is happening. It appears however to be a presentation scene in which the first male figure, who is larger than the other figures, introduces a male-female couple to the goddess, while a female attendant stands at the rear. The first figure is recognizable by his pose with his left arm lying at rest behind him and by the elongated proportions of his legs: he resembles the figure on the gold ring from Poros who stands and addresses the goddess with outstretched arm (Dimopoulou and Rethemiotakis 2000). He is sometimes identified as a god or king, but he might also be a hero or ancestor figure who has the
ability to communicate with the goddess. Whoever he is, the scene depicts a real event, one of a number of spectacles that were performed around the island of Crete and dominated Minoan society. Eighty amethyst beads lay inside the pyxis, many of them in situ with traces of string still preserved so that it was possible to identify two necklaces, one of small and another of larger beads. Other beads included a silver pendant in the shape of a bull’s head, an assortment of carnelian beads, including one in the shape of a figure eight shield, glass paste beads, including one in the shape of a lily, and other beads of lapis lazuli.

The project excavated in three additional areas of the Neopalatial settlement, and in the course of this work uncovered a more complete plan of the LM IB town, exploring its limits on the northeast, and excavating areas that had been incompletely excavated in the past. It also uncovered earlier phases of the Neopalatial town and evidence for the way it (and Minoan civilization with it) was destroyed.


In a previous article, ‘The Coptic Ivory Pyxis of Saint Menas’, I spoke about the looks and attire of Saint Menas shown in one of the scenes of that beautiful pyxis. The pyxis is dated to the sixth century. It represents the earliest fine image of Saint Menas. Saint Menas is represented as a young man, wearing a Coptic tunic, a lacerna cloak and a calcei boots. The last two items of his attire represent his profession as a general in the Roman army before he left the army in AD 303 in protest of the edict of persecution by Emperor Diocletian.

As the lacerna which Saint Menas is depicted in the image wearing covers his trunk on the front and back, his rich Coptic tunic is not depicted in detail. Fortunately, the ivory of Saint Menas in the so-called Grado Chair, which is kept in Milan but originally from Alexandria, and dated to the seventh century, gives us more detail of Saint Menas’ beautiful tunic.

Tunics were the national dress of the Copts in the first millennium of our era for men, women and children. Thanks to the change in our tradition of how to deal with the bodies of our dead with the advance of Christianity, and from the 3 rd century, with the abandoning of mummification and the burial of bodies in full garments, we now have hundreds of tunics excavated from Coptic necropolises in Akhmim, Ashmunein and elsewhere that were retained in good shape due to the dry conditions of Egypt, and now scattered across Europe and America in their museums. Coptic tunics were made in linen from the cellulose fibres in the stalks of the flax plant (linum usitatissimum) that was grown in Egypt. Linen was worn by Egyptians from the days of Predynastic Egypt and was the right fabric to wear in hot climates, like Egypt, as it provides remarkable coolness and freshness to the body. Wool did not become a medium from which tunics were made in Egypt until after the 5 th century. When talking about tunics of the period of the Great Persecution (284 – 311), or the periods preceding it, one should talk about linen tunics, not wool. Later on, tunics were made of linen, wool or a combination of the two. Copts continued to produce and wear tunics until after the Arab occupation in the 7 th century however, the quality of tunics gradually deteriorated and, by the 11 th century, the Arab garments, mainly jalabiyas, took over, and the Copts abandoned their national beautiful attire to wear Arab garb. And the ugliness of jalabiyas was made even worse by the dark and plain colours imposed on the Copts by Muslim authorities to make them stand out for discrimination and public insults and humiliation.

Tunics were made in Coptic looms, in small workshops, usually family-run, across Egypt. The garment is made as a whole in one piece – and not from different pieces of fabric[1] – from sleeve to sleeve, leaving a horizontal slit for the neck-opening.[2] For the production of such tunics, the Copts needed wide looms. The Coptic man tunic (see Fig. 2), for instance, which is kept at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, dated to AD 670-870, measures 131 cm in height and 209 cm in width when the sleeves are included, and 124 cm when the sleeves are excluded. Edges of the produced flat piece of fabric at what will become the bottom and cuffs of the tunic are tightly woven to prevent them from unravelling. The piece is then folded over the shoulders and sewn together along the sides. The sleeves were either short or narrow and long extending to the wrists.

Figure 2: Coptic tunic kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dated to 670-870 AD. Made of red wool and tapestry-woven ornaments. Dimensions: Height: 131 cm, Width: 209 cm including sleeves, Width: 124 cm excluding sleeves. The tunic shows signs of an after-5 th century period (wool made of several parts and not as one piece neck cut).

Figure 3: Coptic tunic kept at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dated to 600-800 AD. From Akhmim necropolis. Made of woven linen, with tapestry-woven woollen decoration. Dimensions: Height: 120 cm, Width: 104 cm. This tunic also shows signs of a late period (made of two pieces neck style).

Figure 4: Fragment (Hanging), from Egypt, 5th/6th century, kept at the art Institute, Chicago. Made of linen and wool, plain weave with weft uncut pile and embroidered linen pile formed by variations of back and stem stitches having dimension of 136.5 x 88.3 cm. The figure wears blue woollen tunic with yellowish decorations.

Men wore their tunics short reaching usually to their knees, while women had their tunics long dropping to their heels. They wore with the tunic a belt to hold the folds of the huge garment in place. The belts were usually woven but sometimes braided or knitted.

The basic linen tunic had the natural white colour of linen and was rarely dyed. Colour, however, was brought in by adding decorations to the garment. By weaving[3] on the loom coloured threads as the weft[4] into the warp[5] of the tunic, the Copts produced beautiful patterns:

  • Clavi (sing. clavus): these are two narrow vertical bands/stripes that are placed across the shoulders, one from each side, usually from the edge of the neck slit, and the run down the shoulders at the front and back and they usually end at a small leaf, heart or a circle.
  • Orbiculi (sing. orbiculus): these are circular or oval decorations that are woven at the shoulders and the lower part of the tunic, front and back, at knee height.[6]

Other woven decorations include stripes woven on the sleeves, the lower edge of the tunic and the neck. Several motives are used in these decorations: Christian symbols (crosses, angels, saints, etc.) humans (dancers, knights, children, etc.) animals (birds, fish, lions, rabbits, etc.) vegetation (leaves, plants, flowers, etc.) and different geometric motives. Various colours were employed in these decorations: red, blue, green, orange, purple, etc. Dyes were obtained from plants (rubia, idigo, saffron, woad, etc.), sea shells (the Tyrian or royal purple) and from some insects.

The tunic is usually worn over a simple undergarment but the tunic often formed a sophisticated garment in which the Copts showed their artistic skills and the greater the decoration of the tunic the higher the social position of its wearer.

Everywhere in the Roman and Byzantine Empires people wore tunics manufactured by the Copts and art of that period often shows us men and women wearing some of these beautiful garments.

The tunic of Saint Menas in the ivory of the so-called Grado Chair above represents one of the most beautiful and rich representations of the Coptic tunics of those times. Saint Menas wears a linen, long-sleeved, a bit long tunic that is richly decorated, pointing to the social position of the saint as a son of nobles and himself a general in the Roman army (which his calcei boots and lacerna cloak show). The rich decoration, made of criss-cross geometric pattern, include clavi, orbiculi and stripes along the lower edge of the tunic. The tunic, which reaches to the calves of the saint’s legs is pulled up on the sides and made loose over the belt, which makes the tunic appear shorter on the sides.

Coptic artists and producers who create works or art and cinematic productions need to study the costumes of that period very well, and use that knowledge in their productions.

[1] Only from the 5 th century that tunics started to be made from two or three pieces.

[2] In later tunics, the neck-opening was shaped and not just a horizontal slit.

[3] At a later stage, decoration were sewed in rather than woven into the tunic fabric.

[4] The horizontal threads on the loom that are woven from side to side, interlacing through the warp in a woven fabric.

[5] The vertical threats on a loom that run up and down, and over and under which the horizontal threats (the weft) are passed to make cloth.

[6] From the 5 th century, square decorations started to make their way and these are called tabulae.


Ivory caskets of this kind were produced in Spain during the 10th and 11th centuries. They were made mostly for caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, Muslims of Arab origin who ruled from their capital at Cordoba.

The cylindrical shape of the casket reflects the form of the elephant's tusk from which it was made. It was given a domed lid, which is attached by metal mounts, probably of a later date. Both the body of the casket and the lid have all-over carved decoration, and traces of red and blue paint show that it was once brightly coloured. It may also have been mounted with small jewels, set in the drilled holes that punctuate the design.

The main element in the decoration is the three large medallions on the body, each showing a man of high rank. In one, a man sits on a dais between two attendants. Another shows a mounted falconer. The third depicts a man sitting cross-legged in a palanquin mounted on an elephant. The lid, part of which has broken away, is decorated with small medallions containing animals.

The lid also bears an inscription in Arabic. This gives the date of manufacture as the year 359 in the Islamic calendar, equivalent to AD 969-70. It also tells us that the casket was made for Ziyad ibn Aflah, who was prefect of police in Cordoba under the caliph al-Hakam II (ruled 961-974). This is the only ivory casket of this type that was made for a named person who was not a member of the ruling dynasty. Ziyad and his family were important figures at the caliphal court, and the caliph probably commissioned the ivory for Ziyad as a gift to be bestowed, like titles, on a favourite.

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7 Impressive Greek Bronze Statues

Greek Sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took early inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art, and over centuries evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form. Greek artists would reach a peak of artistic excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and which was much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealised perfection of the human body, and their figures, especially in their favoured material of bronze, have become some of the most recognisable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization

The larger bronze statues, as in this collection, had a non-bronze core which was sometimes removed to leave a hollow figure. The most common production of bronze statues used the lost-wax technique. This involved making a core almost the size of the desired figure which was then coated in wax and the details sculpted. The whole was then covered in clay fixed to the core at certain points using rods. The wax was then melted out and molten bronze poured into the space once occupied by the wax. When set, the clay was removed and the surface finished off by scraping, fine engraving and polishing. Sometimes copper or silver additions were used for lips, nipples and teeth, and eyes were inlaid. The result was figures which had become sensuous and appeared frozen in action it seems that only a second ago they were actually alive. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve.

You can read more on Greek sculpture in our article here.

Symbols of Royalty in Islamic Ivories

Ivory craftsmanship in early Islamic art represents one of the important artistic traditions of the royal courts. Due to its rarity and expense, ivory was considered a luxury material that was specifically associated with court art. Some ivory objects were made for gifts to members of the royal family, while others were used as political gestures given to important allies and friends. In either function, the ivories were typically carved with images relating to the royal court that further emphasize the objects’ high status. This royal imagery takes the form of low-relief images of royal figures, princely activities, and symbolic animal motifs that are all rendered with extensive detail. Overall, both the material and decorative aspects of Islamic ivories establish the artistic significance and affluence of the Islamic royal courts.

Ivory bears significance in the artistic realm of early Islamic court society. During the 9 th , 10 th , and 11 th centuries, ivory had been gaining value throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic Spain (Collon 1977). At this time, ivory was considered a rarity, as it was derived from the limited supply of elephant tusks that were hard to acquire. Its durable and smooth texture made it easy to carve the intricate and abstract designs of Islamic art (Macaulay-Lewis). As a result, ivory was highly desirable for artistic purposes and became increasingly expensive. These circumstances, therefore, primarily directed the ivory market towards the families of the royal court who could afford and utilize this luxurious material as an implication of wealth and power (Dodds 1992 Prado-Vilar 1997). The suggestion is that the use and possession of this precious material alone signifies the prestigious class of the beholder, therefore ivory produces were associated with royalty.

Beyond the prestigious material, the decorative carvings on these ivory boxes express themes of prestige that also reflect their royal owners. Primarily, representations of princely figures are often depicted to show aristocratic habits. The Pyxis of al-Mughira, for example, is decorated with four scenes that communicate a political message about the royal lineage from the caliph al-Hakam II (Prado Vilar 1997). The first scene, specifically, portrays al-Hakam II’s two heirs sitting atop a lion throne amidst a lute player (Figure 1). This imagery expresses the authority inherent in the royal family. Two lions physically support the royal heirs on their throne, which specifically alludes to their authority and royal heritage. Essentially, while the lion is commonly referred to as the king of the beasts, the royal family commands a sense of respect and might that is far superior to that of the beasts (Adey 1993). Additionally, the heirs are dressed in formal, luxurious outfits that include robes embellished with tiraz bands. Tiraz bands are inscribed textiles that are attached to robes of honor as a symbol of loyalty to the caliphate (Ekhtiar and Cohen 2000). These bands often signify the wealth, status, and influence of the recipient and were, therefore, important in distinguishing those within royal court (Ekhtiar and Cohen 2000). These tiraz bands indicate that the heirs are wearing rich garb that draws attention to their princely affluence and power. Both the pyxis’ lion imagery and the costume details emulate the extravagant lifestyle and tastes of its beholder. Therefore, the decorative distinctions of power help reflect the importance of the people in the court.

Representations of nobility are also depicted on the pyxis made in ca. 969-970 for Ziyad ibn Aflah who worked as a prefect for the caliphal court in Cordoba. Motifs of royalty are shown in three medallion scenes. The first scene depicts a man of high rank sitting cross-legged on a throne (Figure 2). He rests comfortably between two attendants that wait on him attentively. The imagery here, again, references themes of glorified power, as the central figure is rendered on a throne with royal connotations. Additionally, the inclusion of attendants further demonstrates an imperial quality as only high-ranking officials had the political clout and wealth to maintain personal servants (Baer 1999). In this respect, the imagery is related to aspects of the ruling family by portraying images of royal significance. Although Ziyad ibn Aflah was not a direct member of the royal family, his possession of this box suggests it was a luxurious gift from an important member of the court (Victoria and Albert Museum). Ultimately, the conventional princely representations contribute to an understanding of the imperial reign.

Ivory objects also often included scenes of hunting and royal celebrations that were established activities of the Islamic nobility. The Morgan Casket, for example, is extensively carved with images of human figures engaging in the hunting activities that reference court life. For example, images of men with spears hunt down exotic beasts and birds in the repeated circular vignettes on the casket (Figure 3). Hunting is an activity that requires skill, strength, and courage, therefore powerful Islamic rulers often used hunting motifs to symbolically assert their superiority and bravery in ruling their kingdom (Blair 2004). Essentially, these images of hunting suggest that the skill and bravery used to overtake animalistic beasts can equally translate to overtake competitors.

This is also demonstrated in the gilded ivory casket that was made in the Umayyad court in 10 th century Cordoba. The hunting imagery decorating the panels expresses a similar domineering tone to that of the Morgan Casket. For example, the front panel of the box depicts a scene of two huntsmen on horseback preying on a small gazelle (Figure 4). The huntsmen face each other and point their spears down at the gazelle to suggest its final submission.

The 10th century pyxis from the Victoria and Albert museum also contains similar hunting imagery. One of the medallions depicts a huntsman on horseback. In this scene, a falcon rests atop the huntsman’s right arm (Figure 9). Falcons were commonly used to symbolize Islamic royalty due to their ferocity. Therefore, the depiction of the falcon alludes to the noble status of the huntsmen, as hunting was a particularly notable pastime within the royal court.

This hunting motif is further witnessed in the four ivory panels that belonged to the Fatimid court. In these panels, some huntsmen appear holding spear-like objects faced at lions, while other figures are portrayed carrying the game from their hunt atop their shoulders (Figure 5). In all of these examples, the hunting scenes consistently allude to the dominance of the ruler, as the conquest of beasts implies a threat to any potential challengers. The hunting images, therefore, supports the notion that these objects help characterize the power of Islamic royalty.

Images of celebration with music, food, and wine are also a common decorative motif that show the lavish lifestyle of the princely figures. Specifically, the 11 th and 12th century ivory panels from Cairo include repeated images of musicians playing flutes and other string instruments amidst a courtly celebration (Figure 5). The Cordoban, Pyxis of al-Mughira also portrays a lute player that plays for al-Hakam II’s two heirs to the caliphate (Figure 1). In both representations, musicians accompany images of royalty to symbolize the divine qualities of the court (Denny 1985). Scholars suggest that, from early Islamic times, music had a religious significance through reflections of heavenly paradise (Grabar 1978 Denny 1985). Islamic tradition specifically associates angels with musical accompaniment in the heavenly gardens (Grabar 1978 Denny 1985). In the ivories, this tradition is depicted in a way that associates divinity with the royal court by including musical elements in courtly scenes. Therefore, the musicians enhance the importance of the royal figures represented by inducing a religious significance among the figures.

In addition to explicit representations of royalty and princely pastimes, ivories were also commonly decorated with images of animals that symbolize noble attributes. Depictions of lions attacking gazelles were popular motifs that represent royal supremacy. The Cordoban gilded, ivory casket as well as the four, Fatimid ivory panels both repeatedly show this motif. This motif is the central imagery of the back panel of Cordoban casket, where we can explicitly see the lion’s teeth digging in to the backside of the gazelle (Figure 6). In the four ivory panels, this motif is also depicted with great detail, as the lion pounces onto the back of the gazelle in attack (Figure 5). This vicious animal dynamic is used to symbolize the political strength of Islamic rulers (Behrens-Abouseif). The implication is that while the Islamic kingdom represents the mighty lion, the enemies are rendered in the more weak and docile role of the gazelle (Behrens-Abouseif). Therefore, this imagery insinuates threat to any opposition, under the assumption that the Islamic kingdom has incomparable power and untouchable superiority. In this way, the symbolic imagery of the lion and gazelle gives the ruler confidence by reinforcing the overarching dominance of the royal court, capable of protecting its empire.

The Pyxis of al-Mughira utilizes similar imagery, however, portrays the lion attacking a bull rather than a gazelle (Figure 7). In this adaptation, the motif further purports the political and militaristic power of the Islamic reign by enhancing the opponent. Essentially, a bull has aggressive connotations as it is considered a wild and dangerous animal (Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art 2014). However, in the pyxis carvings, the lion is still able to conquer and thwart the bull’s hostile intentions. Because the lion can be cited as a symbol of the rulers of the royal court, this imagery contributes to the significance of the court by demonstrating that even qualified combatants cannot effectively cross the regal kingdom.

In addition to lions, gazelles, and bulls, eagles are also commonly portrayed as emblems of royal power (Prado Vilar 1997). On the lid of the Morgan Casket, for example, there is a roundel that depicts an eagle that is spreading its wings (Figure 8). This decoration is important in identifying the kingly quality of the box, as the eagle is essentially a symbol of royalty. Similarly, in the Pyxis of al-Mughira the second medallion scene features the al-Hakam II’s two sons reaching up to three eagle nests (Figure 10). Prado Vilar posits that this scene depicts the two youths grasping their share of the royal throne (Prado Vilar 1997). In these two examples, the illustrations of the eagle reference the aristocracy and connect the imagery to a royal context. The eagle is an important symbol of the court due to its inherently brave and fierce qualities. Therefore, it is repeatedly shown on these courtly pieces to further demonstrate the significance of the royal court.

Ultimately, both the material and the figural decorations of the Islamic ivories reinforce traditions of male sovereignty. The luxurious material and royal decorations specifically contribute to the aesthetic appeal and high status of these objects that were created for royalty, officials, and allies. As a result, ivory objects were cherished and revered throughout the royal court as precious and desirable objects. However, in the growing political tension between the Christian and Islamic forces, Christian kings took the ivory caskets as war booty (Harris 1995). Essentially, Christians intended to steal these pieces as evidence of their burgeoning power over Islamic kingdoms (Harris 1995). Much of this is explained by the fact that these pieces were expensive and important to the Islamic royal court. Therefore, the political desirability of these pieces further suggests the ivories’ significance, as they essentially represented physical portrayals of power. Overall, Islamic ivories were designed to express rank and importance within the royal courts. This sense of importance is, ultimately, evidenced in the lavish material of the objects, the decorative references to royal affluence, luxury, and power, as well as the pieces’ implicit values between the Christian and Islamic political dynamic. In these ways, the ivories function as political, social, and economic determinants of the profound, Islamic royalty.

Pyxis of al-Mughira, 357/968 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

Pyxis from Madinat al-Zahra, 969-970, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.


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