Four ivory panels
Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 5th–6th centuries / AD 11th–12th centuries
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
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.
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.
Freiherr von Zu-Rhein Collection; F. v. Amerling Collection; A. Figdor Collection
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.
Bought from a private art gallery in 1936.
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.
Ettinghausen, R. and Grabar, O., The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650–1250, Harmondsworth, 1987, pp.202–206.
Hoffman, E. R., “A Fatimid Book Cover: Framing and Re-framing. Cultural Identity in the Medieval Mediterranean World”, in L’Egypte Fatimide: Son Art et Son Histoire, (ed. M. Barrucand), Paris, 1999, pp.403–19.
Kühnel, E., Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen, VIII-XIII. Jh., Berlin, 1971, pp.68–9, no. 88, plates 97–8.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Catalogue, Berlin, 1979, no. 21.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Catalogue, Stuttgart; Zürich, 1980, no. 19, pp.50–1.
Annette Hagedorn "Four ivory panels" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2023. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;8;en
Prepared by: Annette Hagedorn
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 12
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Fatimids | Pleasures and Celebrations at Court Women | Muslim Women as Professionals, Artisans and Performing Artists
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