Literary Reading: Fatimid Objects – Four Ivory Panels

Pleasures and Celebrations at the Fatimid Court

Despite their piety, life at the Fatimid court and that of their vassals – the Zirids in North Africa and the Kalbids in Sicily – was not short of entertainment, provided by poets, singers, and dancers. In North Africa, the Fatimids welcomed local poets such as the Ifriqiyans (Tunisians) Ibn Hani and al-Ladi. Later, in Cairo, the court hosted poets from all over the Islamic world. A number of caliphs also composed poetry which was sometimes performed publicly. Musical entertainment drew on the Eastern tradition and borrowed elements from the Andalusian repertoire; it was performed by male and female musicians on instruments such as reed flutes, lutes and dulcimers. Singers, many of whom had mastered both an instrument and verse, sang poetry exploring love and chivalry. Male and female dancers performed eloquently; the popular handkerchief dance appears on many relief carvings.

The function of these panels with themes from princely life is not known, but the carving of hunters with hawks, musicians and revellers against a background of vine scrolls demonstrates the artistic quality of Fatimid ivory carving at its best and thus may be a ruler’s commission for a palace.

The function of these panels with themes from princely life is not known, but the carving of hunters with hawks, musicians and revellers against a background of vine scrolls demonstrates the artistic quality of Fatimid ivory carving at its best and thus may be a ruler’s commission for a palace.

Name of Object :
Four ivory panels

Holding Museum:
Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany

Original Owner:
Freiherr von Zu-Rhein Collection; F. v. Amerling Collection; A. Figdor Collection

Museum Inventory Number:
I. 6375

Dimensions:
Horizontal panels: length 36.5 cm, width 5.8 cm.
Vertical panels: height 30.3 cm, width 5.8 cm.
Depth of panels 1–1.5 cm

Material(s)/Technique(s):
Ivory.

Date of the object:
Hegira 5th–6th centuries / AD 11th–12th centuries

Period / Dynasty
Fatimid

Provenance:
Egypt.

Description:
The four panels made of carved and openworked pieces of ivory are outstanding examples of the repertoire of work commissioned by the court of the Fatimid period. They are among the most important works of art from this period.

Two of these panels display a horizontal pattern, while the other two have been decorated linearly along the vertical axis. These latter vertical panels have been shortened slightly. Traces of red indicate that there was once a coloured frame or mount.

Figures, carved to stand out in high relief, are depicted undertaking a variety of activities. Spiralling grapevines form a backdrop against which people are portrayed in action. Thick grapes hang off the plants. Huntsmen with falcons, helpers carrying small hoofed game, musicians (flute, oboe, lute, plucked stringed instruments), a reveller, pouring into his goblet from a jug, workers picking grapes, and falcons on the hunt – are all depicted in a lifelike and realistic fashion. The illustrations of animal fighting show a lion hunting down a bull, a falcon hunting a deer. A prince reclines on a bolster holding a goblet in his left hand. Everyone wears robes common to that era, made of fabrics decorated with a variety of designs. Even the headdresses are illustrative of the period rather than creations of fantasy.

Some depictions refer to pre-Islamic art and reflect the continuing existence of older traditions. It was especially during the Fatimid period that the ban on pictures was circumvented in courtly circles and that representations of the human form were undertaken.

From stylistic and thematic similarities, a good comparison can be drawn between the works on ivory and the woodwork and ceramics created during the Fatimid period, in which the finer technique seen in the ivory engraving demonstrates greater skill.

What remains unexplained is their function. The panels could have been used to decorate or coat a wooden surface (such as a door or large trunk), or could have been used as part of a throne. The Arab historian al-Maqrîzî (AH 766–845 / AD 1364–1442) described a Fatimid throne made of ebony and ivory.

How object was obtained:
Bought from a private art gallery in 1936.

How object was dated:
The fact that these panels have not been attributed to a particular building, and that stylistic comparisons to other works of ivory from southern Italy have demonstrated substantial differences, indicates that they might date from the Fatimid period, as they compare stylistically to other artworks from Egypt, above all to Fatimid woodwork.

How provenance was established:
As Fatimid woodwork from Egypt is the only art form that bears close stylistic comparison to these panels, so far it is thought that these most probably come from Egypt.

________________________

Credits:

Above Text and Images reproduced with the kind permission of Museum with No Frontiers (MWNF) and the holding museum, Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany. Copyright MWNF.

Please visit the state of the art MWNF Website at  http://www.museumwnf.org/ and click on Discover Islamic Art for more images, close-ups, additional research material and bibliography of the above object(s) as well as numerous objects and monuments from other periods of Islamic History.

Please read other articles in this website on Fatimid Objects/Monuments at MWNF:
Literary Reading: Fatimid Monument – Aqueduct in Kairouan, Tunisia; Patron Imam al-Mui’zz (the reading includes a summary of the goals and vision of MWNF)
Literary Reading: Fatimid Object – Textile Fragment Attributed to Imam al-Aziz
Literary Reading: Fatimid Object – Fragment of Robe Attributed to Imam al-Mustansir

One thought on “Literary Reading: Fatimid Objects – Four Ivory Panels

  1. Once again, your pointing out that male and female took part in art, culture, music etc. is significant to me. One hardly hears of the Fatimid period even mentioned by our fellow Muslims when they are confronted by the hostile attacks made on our faith of Islam, or Muslims, in this age of Islamophobia of running down everything that Islam stands for.

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