By Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay
Pyxis of al-Mughira, possibly from Madinat al-Zahra, AH 357/ 968 CE, carved ivory with traces of jade, 16cm x 11.8 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
A pyxis is a cylindrical box used for cosmetics. Now, imagine a room in a palace where this beautifully carved ivory container is given a central place. The luxurious box sits open. Inside are small silver containers of perfume, also left open so that their sweet-smelling aromas could waft through the room, gently scenting the air. This particular pyxis was a gift to the then-eighteen-year-old al-Mughira, the son of a caliph, perhaps as a coming-of-age present.
Pyxis of al-Mughira
The Pyxis of al-Mughira, now in the Louvre, is among the best surviving examples of the royal ivory carving tradition in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). It was probably fashioned in the Madinat al-Zahra workshops and its intricate and exceptional carving set it apart from many other examples; it also contains an inscription and figurative work which are important for understanding the traditions of ivory carving and Islamic art in Al-Andalus.
Carved ivories in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain)
Al-Andalus, the lands on the Iberian Peninsula (today, Spain), which were controlled by Muslims from 711 to 1492, are home to some of the most remarkable monuments of Islamic art. These include the Great Mosque of Córdoba, constructed by successive Umayyad Caliphs, and the Alhambra Palace, built by the final Islamic dynasty that controlled Al-Andalus, the Nasrids. As stunning and impressive as the architecture of Al-Andalus was, the luxury arts, specifically the exquisite textiles and intricately carved ivory artifacts, produced in in royal workshops, also flourished. One of the best examples of this tradition is the Pyxis of al-Mughira.
Since the twilight years of the Roman Empire, carved ivory objects had been important elements of the artistic canon of the Mediterranean. Ivory was durable, smooth, elegant, and easily carved, making it highly desirable for the creation of diptychs, pyxides (the plural of pyxis), and icons that could serve as single panels or could combined into diptychs or triptychs during the Byzantine Empire. Highly portable, they were often given as gifts. Although ivory carving was practiced in Constantinople, Syria and Egypt, it was a new arrival in Al-Andalus, and there are no examples of ivory carved caskets before the reign of the Umayyad caliph,
‘Abd al-Rahman III
The Pyxis of al-Mughira is decorated with four eight-lobed medallions which are surrounded by figures and animals that include falconers, wrestlers, griffons, peacocks, birds, goats and animals to be hunted. Each medallion has princely iconography.
Pyxis of al-Mughira, possibly from Madinat al-Zahra, AH 357/ 968 CE, Carved ivory with traces of jade (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
This medallion (above) shows two men collecting eggs from the nests of Falcons, a symbol of Umayyad legitimacy.
Who were they made for?
In Al-Andalus, ivory objects, including pyxides, were bestowed upon members of the royal family, specifically sons, wives and daughters on important or memorable occasions, such as a marriage, birth or coming of age; later they were given as Caliphal gifts to important allies, such as the Berbers, who are the indigenous peoples of North Africa, many of whom converted to Islam and swore their allegiance to the Umayyad Caliphs in Spain.
A surprising number of these royal ivory objects survive in their entirety, and these are spread throughout the museum collections today (see the links below). Typically, these objects were carved out of solid ivory. Many caskets and pyxides held perfumes or cosmetics. While many pyxides were given to women, many were also given to men, including this one, which was given to al-Mughira, the youngest son of the deceased caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III, when he was eighteen years old in the year AH 357/ 968 C.E.
Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
This medallion centers around a lute player flanked by two figures, one of whom holds the braided scepter and flask of the Umayyads, while the other holds a fan. Presumably the man with the scepter and flask symbolizes the Umayyad Caliph, and the figure with the fan, the Abassids.
The pyxis was probably cut from the cross-section of an elephant’s tusk and it was adorned in highly specific, royal iconography. There are also traces of inlaid jade. Jade and other precious and semi-precious stones were used in the decoration of these boxes.
Remember, Islamic art is not strictly speaking aniconic (the absence of human figures). Human and animal figures played a vital part in iconography. We see them here in this pyxis, which some scholars (including those at the Louvre), have interpreted as expressing the political authority and legitimacy of Umayyad Caliphs (as opposed to the Abbasid Caliphs, who ruled in Baghdad).
Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail), (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Another medallion shows lions attacking two bulls. As in Arabic poetry, these lions symbolize the victorious (in this case, perhaps the Umayyads).
Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail)
The final scene shows men on horseback date-picking. The date-palm, found primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, may allude to the lost lands of the East (the lands under Abbasid control). This too was a theme of Umayyad poetry. The use of visual imagery which is also found in the poetry of the era demonstrates that these two art forms were in communication.
An Arabic inscription in the
runs around the base of the lid and reads: “God's blessing, favours, joy, beatitude to al-Mughira son of the Commander of the faithful, may God have mercy upon him, in the year 357.”
Pyxis of al-Mughira (detail), photo: Steven Zucker
Some inscriptions on other ivory carvings also mention the name of the workshop and craftsman who made these exceptional pieces.
The iconography may have had a further specific message to al-Mughira. After the death of his brother, al-Hakam II, al-Mughira may have been a threat to
and he was executed (along with his supporters). While al-Mughira met an unfortunate end, the beauty of his pyxis ensured its survival.
Bloom, Jonathan, and Sheila Blair. 2009. “Ivory.” The Grove encyclopedia of Islamic art and architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 331–6.
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. 2010. Islamic arts from Spain. London: V&A Publishing, 26–30.
Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay
Want to join the conversation?
- What might the perfume kept in this pyxis have smelled of? I'd be really interested to know what scents were popular in this region in this period.(11 votes)
- Hmmm.. Well that is actually a tough question to answer, so I'll give you two of the more likely possibilities.
If they had more traditional tastes, then they might have gone with perfume based on tree and plant sap/resin. Perfume artisans were highly regarded and would do all manner of mixing the extracted liquids with water, boiling cooling and so on to get it "perfect"; their recipes are unknown because they were a well-guarded secret often. Balsam plants were quintessential to early perfume making - both frankincense and myrrh came from balsam plants ...as well as balsamic vinegar on a related note. But today many species of balsam plant have died out or are hard to come by which is why you often find substitute balsamic vinegar in the market called balsamic vinegar of modena (the price difference is about $4 a bottle vs $40) and frankincense and myrrh are not found readily or not in the form that we hear of in biblical texts.
While regional perfumes were mostly based on the balsam plant family, which is quite aromatic, trade with the east was bringing citrus, jasmine, and other exotic and aromatic plants to islamic artisans who might incorporate these or make them the base for completely separate perfumes.(16 votes)
- What does "legitimacy" refer to when the article talks about the two men collecting Falcon eggs.(4 votes)
- It means that they are the true, proper, legal rulers of the kingdom, not some impostors who took the throne through force.(5 votes)
- is there a specific time or dynasty human and animal figures appeared in Islamic Art ?
is the main stream of Islamic Art is aniconic and there's some exceptions ?(2 votes)
- Figural art was prevalent in the pre-Islamic periods of these areas and never truly left. For example, under the first Islamic dynasty, the Middle Eastern Umayyads, luxury arts ranging from brass ewers of falcons to private palaces with frescoes of kings were common. There are two main forms of Islamic art: religious and secular. In a religious context, figural art is almost never seen. In a secular, private context, there is plenty of figural decorative art that becomes famous throughout the world. The concept of Islamic art as entirely an-iconic I think comes from Western observers experiencing/focusing on the religious structures like the great mosques and not the smaller trinkets of those who could afford luxury arts.(4 votes)
- How is this Islamic art, when Islam clearly prohibits picture making? (i.e. animate objects, such as the eyes nose etc carved in the sculptures above)(2 votes)
- Great question. As with all religions and traditions there are exceptions and times and places when rules are followed more and less strictly. In addition, context is important. As I understand it, images of figures are fairly common in art of the Islamic world for objects made for private, domestic settings while such images would never be allowed in a mosque.(3 votes)
- 'braided specter and flask of the Umayyads' do you mean braided 'sceptre'? (which is what the picture looks like.)(1 vote)
- Wikipedia also uses the term specter found in the article about Pyxis of al-Mughira: Medallion Three shows a musical court scene of two seated figures flanking a middle figure who is suspected to be a servant due to his smaller, secondary scale. One figure holds the braided specter and flask of the Umayyads, while the other holds a fan. The footnote references a 2005 text by Francisco Prado-Vilar. I also would like further clarification from someone who knows the origin of this usage of specter.(1 vote)
- In Islam, your not allowed to any thing with faces on art. So what's up with the art images?(0 votes)
- I will copy/paste the good answer of Steven Zucker from above:
"Great question. As with all religions and traditions there are exceptions and times and places when rules are followed more and less strictly. In addition, context is important. As I understand it, images of figures are fairly common in art of the Islamic world for objects made for private, domestic settings while such images would never be allowed in a mosque. "(2 votes)
- What sort of cosmetics would 18-year-old boys have used?(1 vote)
- Ithmid Surma for the eyes and musk and oud for perfume. This was the Prophetic tradition, I would imagine they used this.(1 vote)