Pyxis (container with lid)
Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum
Hegira 1st–2nd centuries/ AD 7th-8th centuries
Relief-cut ivory, metal lid with metal rim.
Height 9.4 cm, diameter 9 cm
Syria or Egypt.
This cylindrical, slightly stocky, rotund lidded box was made out of three joined pieces of elephant tusk. Its surface is covered with a vine tendril decoration, which is framed above and below by a thin border pattern of merlons. The lid is embellished with concentric grooves; its rim is incised with notches and is set in a sheet of silver that incorporates unused hinges. The body of the receptacle sits on a flat pedestal that protrudes beyond the base, and which is attached by three metal pins. A central metal knob is related to the original clasp.
The box is an early example of the ivory craftsmanship of the Near East. The vine tendril decoration, which covers all the surface, was already very popular in Pre-Islamic times, and was of great significance in Islamic art. The decoration displayed on this small box, of vine tendrils hanging with grapes and springing out of four vases, represents a motif that could already be found in the mosaic work of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and on the façade of the Mushatta Palace. The use of this motif in the manufacture of small objects – manufacture which was by no means regarded as simply utilitarian – demonstrates the importance of the vine tendril motif in the overall development of an Islamic aesthetic beginning in the AH 1st / AD 7th century. This box already features the branched vine tendril motif that would later become the ornamental motif referred to as the arabesque. The original purpose of the pyxis remains unknown.
A design of vine scrolls growing out of four vases adorns this small box carved out of precious ivory. While the shape was known in the pre-Islamic period in Egypt and greater Syria, it is typical for an early Islamic object to be completely covered with a stylised vine pattern.
It is not possible to specify an exact date; however, similar ivory pyxides and ivory or ivory-plated discs with similar vine decoration are dated in the literature to be from the 1st or 2nd / 7th or 8th centuries. It is very probable that Christian symbols are missing from this pyxis, as it was made for an Umayyad patron.
Bought from an art gallery in 1905. Long-term loan from the Sculpture Collection.
Similar ivory pyxides and ivory or ivory-plated discs with similar vine decoration are thought to be from the Umayyad period, and, through comparative studies, they are believed to have originated first in Syria or Egypt. It has not yet been possible to establish an exact provenance.
Kühnel, E., Die Arabeske: Sinn und Wandlung eine Ornaments,Berlin, 1949; 2nd edition, Graz, 1977.
Kühnel, E., Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen, VIII-XIII. Jh., Berlin, 1971, p. 25, no. 1, plate 1.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Catalogue, Berlin, 1979, no. 130.
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Catalogue, Stuttgart; Zürich, 1980, no. 7, pp.26–7.
Riegl, A., Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik, Berlin, 1893; reprint Munich, 1985, pp.259–346.
Annette Hagedorn "Pyxis (container with lid)" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;de;Mus01;4;en
Prepared by: Annette Hagedorn
Translation by: Maria Vlotides, Brigitte Finkbeiner
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: GE 05
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Umayyads | The Formation of Islamic Art
Virtual Visit Exhibition Trail
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