Craft and Splendour: Inlaid Metalwork from the Islamic World
Dr Lara Frentrop
The Courtauld Gallery has an impressive collection of inlaid metalwork, a technique of making prestige objects that became popular in the Eastern Mediterranean (present-day Turkey, Iran and Iraq) in the later Middle Ages. In this presentation I will introduce you to the making and the meaning of inlaid metalwork objects, explaining the technique of making inlaid metalwork and looking closely at some of the stunningly beautiful examples in the Courtauld Gallery, focusing in particular on the Courtauld Bag.
Artworks made of inlaid metal can take a variety of shapes, from bowls and basins to candlesticks, boxes, and round incense burners. Whatever the shape of the object, the materials and process of making remains largely the same:
The base of the object is made of brass, a base alloy that shares the visual qualities of gold – the splendor, the shine and the colour – but is much cheaper and easier to work. To make up an object, a sheet of brass is hammered into shape, usually by using a wooden support that has the shape that the final object is meant to take – round for an incense burner, flat and round for a basin, etc. Objects of a more complex form, such as candlesticks, would not be hammered but cast by pouring melted metal into a mould.
Then, decoration is added through inlays in other metals including silver, gold, and black resin. How this is done can be seen when looking closely at objects where the inlay has fallen out:
The parts of the metal that are to hold an inlay, for example a head, a halo, or a piece of furniture, are pushed back with a tool. A piece of silver or other metal is laid into the shape that was carved out. It is held in place by folding back over the lip of the brass, which works like a frame.
From the detail of the Courtauld Bag you can get an idea how effective this is as a technique: the maker only needed the smallest amounts of precious metal – thin wires of silver and gold – to cover large expanses of space, resulting in a lavish yet relatively affordable object.
One of the most important centres of production of inlaid metalwork was Mosul in northern Iraq. Mosul had long been an important trade centre, due to its location on the main route between the Mediterranean and the Indian Sea. During the thirteenth century, it was a centre for the manufacture of luxury goods, notably inlaid metalwork and silk textiles. A visitor to the city in 1250 wrote:
‘Mosul… There are many crafts in the city, especially inlaid copper vessels which are exported and presented to rulers, as are the silken garments woven there.’
In 1262, Mosul was captured and looted by the Mongols, which led scholars to believe that artistic production in the city must have ceased completely. But documentary evidence suggests that the conquest did not appear to affect craftsmen in the city, which continued to be famed for its silk production. Neither was the sack of Mosul a deathblow to its metalworking industry. Accounts of several luxury metalworkers in Mosul dating from the years before the conquest up to the early fourteenth century attest to the fact that these craftsmen either survived in or returned to the city and remained active, producing inlaid metalwork throughout. Other metalworkers, trained in Mosul, left the city but largely upheld its stylistic and technical traditions, using the words ‘al-Mawsili’ (of Mosul) to sign their work, almost like a badge guaranteeing quality.
The Courtauld Bag, produced in Mosul in the opening decades of the fourteenth century, is a unique brass object decorated with silver, gold, and black inlays, made up of an intricately decorated body and double-hinged flap. The interior of the bag is now bare, but it was probably once lined with fabric or leather. It was bequeathed to the Courtauld Gallery in 1966, as part of the nineteenth-century collection of Thomas Gambier Parry. Due to its unusual shape, the bag was initially termed a ‘wallet’ by scholars, who assumed that it was made to contain important princely documents
The bag, which is fifteen centimetres high and twenty-two centimetres at its widest, is decorated throughout with a T-shaped pattern that serves as a backdrop for the carefully worked medallions on its front, back, sides, and the lid. The front of the bag show a mounted rider spearing a lion with a long lance. Like all the figures on the bag, he is haloed – a tool for drawing attention to the heads of individuals and sometimes animals at this period, rather than a symbol with religious significance. The medallion with the lion-killer is framed by four shapes containing floral designs, as well as four roundels that depict seated figures playing instruments or holding drinking implements (two of these are partially obscured by the bag’s lid).
This pattern is repeated on the reverse of the bag, with only minor differences: here, the horseman has a large bird of prey perched on his arm, and the cross-legged figures in the roundels hold slightly different objects. The sides of the bag, which feature fastenings for the leather strap that once would have served to carry the bag, are decorated with more floral and animal patterns, along with two roundels on each side that depict additional seated musicians and individuals with cups and beakers. On the bag as a whole, we can find eight musicians playing instruments – one harp, two flutes, three tambourines, and two lutes – and six figures with a beaker or a bottle. The instruments and the drinking implements are typical of intimate entertainment that often took place indoors. The floating tendrils behind the musicians may suggest the billowing scarves of dancers in the background, completing the scene of aristocratic leisure pursuits.
The different images distributed across the bag are to be read by the viewer as a single unit. Together, the musicians, drinkers, and riders on the sides, back, and front of the bag allude to a favourite courtly pastime – the hunt – and the feasting and drinking that would follow a successful expedition. The hunt – or the ‘pursuit of protein, profit, power, and pleasure’ – was not only a necessity, but also a pleasure shared across geographical, cultural, ethnic, and social divides. For nomadic rulers, the skills needed for the hunt, such as co-ordinating manpower, laying snares, and deploying stealth, were largely interchangeable with those needed on the battlefield. The hunt also offered the occasion for the display of wealth, power and skill, as the animals required for the expedition, notably trained falcons and horses, were expensive to buy and keep, and the domination of the animal world demonstrated the ruler’s potency. The feasts following the hunt provided the opportunity not only to socialise and be entertained, but also for the granting of appointments and favours.
The artwork’s narrative and iconographic unit is completed by the scene on the lid, arguably the most important decorative element of the bag, as it gives us important clues as to its original function and owner. The lid is made up of a rectangular panel depicting a scenario from courtly life around which runs an inscription in Arabic:
‘Glory and prosperity and (God’s) grace
and eminence / And fulfillment of wishes
and prudence in deeds / And respect and
honour / And benevolence and decent act
(?) / And undiminishing good-fortune / And
uninterrupted happiness / And perfection
and excellence. / And that is all.’
This inscription includes phrases of good wishes for the owner, specially composed for the bag. Such inscriptions are common on inlaid metalwork and most of the phrases are popular throughout the Islamic world, but they vary in their choice of words and arrangements from object to object.
A brass bowl from fourteenth-century Mamluk Egypt, probably made to contain perfumed water that servants would pour over their master’s hands and decorated with flying ducks, plants, and whirling rosettes, bears an Arabic inscription running elegantly around the body of the vessel. The inscription, inlaid in silver, tells us that the bowl was made for an officer of Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century and includes phrases of good wishes similar to those also found on the Courtauld Bag. While inlaid brass was a cheaper and more practical alternative to gold, this technique of making objects was clearly considered prestigious enough to use for objects made for the elite of the Islamic world, from Iraq to Egypt and beyond. The objects made of inlaid brass are often, but not exclusively, of a courtly nature – that is, to be used in a domestic setting at the court of rulers and in the houses of the administrative and military elite.
Another example of this kind of object is a small incense burner made of inlaid metal, also in the Courtauld Gallery’s collection. The incense burner is shaped like a ball, with its round exterior delicately pierced to allow the smoke of the incense burning on the inside to infuse the air around it. Round incense burners such as this one had a device on their inside that allowed the incense to stay upright even when the ball moved, for example when being rolled through a room, whether as part of a game or to diffuse the fragrance of the incense. On the top of the incense burner is a sun, made of a silver inlay; the body of the burner consists of medallions that show personifications of the planets.
At the heart of the inscription on the Courtauld Bag lies a scene of courtly life, which is the focus of the decoration of the bag and was probably designed specifically for the lid by an artist with an extensive knowledge of courtly customs and dress. Although the scene is small, it is executed in such detail that contemporary furnishings and vessels are easily identifiable within it. In the centre of the scene, a man (to the left) and a woman (on the right) are seated together on a low platform. The man, identified by his facial features as the portrait of a Mongol, is holding a beaker to his lips. On his left, the appropriate place for a ruler’s consort according to Mongol protocol, sits the woman, whose face is missing its inlay. In one hand, she is holding a fruit – probably a pomegranate, symbol of fertility – , and with the other, she is gesturing towards her companion, in an animated motion that shows conversation. The woman seated next to the man reflects not merely their marital relation or mutual affection; her position is also an expression of the matrix of political power. Mongol ‘first ladies’ and princesses had exceptional social and political power at the time of the Il-Khanate. This was achieved through their considerable rights and privileges, including taxation rights, a share in booty, their own camps, retinue, and military support, the right to issue decrees with their own seals, and their ability to move around independently of their husbands for lengthy periods at a time. Some of them minted their own coins; all of them played a major role in the election of succeeding Il-Khans. Consequently, marriage was an important tool in harnessing the power of the females and their dynasties.
The couple, which are shown on a larger scale than all the other figures, are surrounded by attendants and courtiers. To the left of the prince, a courtier is kneeling down, holding out a bowl. He is the only one comparable in size to the seated couple. As scale was a way of indicating importance and hierarchy, the courtier’s size, as well as his beard and his separation from the other attendants could indicate that he is on a similar level of authority to the seated pair. On the table behind him are placed two bottles; the one on the right may be a special vessel to contain qumiz, the traditional drink of the Mongols made of fermented mare’s milk. Behind the table stands a man with a bowl in his outstretched hand. Behind him is another man, with a bird of prey perched on his arm. There are four more figures to the left of the seated woman. Immediately next to her is her page, who is holding a mirror and a napkin. On his shoulder, he is carrying a bag with a flap opening, suspended by a gold strap. This is probably a representation of the Courtauld bag itself. Behind the page are three attendants: the first is holding a parasol, the second carrying a bottle, and the third playing the oud.
Significantly, if the bag carried by the attendant is supposed to represent the Courtauld bag itself, then the female must represent its real owner accompanied by her husband and attendants. The pomegranate and the presence of the consort next to the male in the image express a concern with fertility and the continuation of a blood line, guaranteed through the female. In combination with the courtly nature of the scene, it seems likely that the couple depicted on the bag are royal, although it will probably never be possible to identify them. The bearded courtier kneeling next to them might represent an official at the Mongol Il-Khanid court, such as a local governor. These were responsible for overseeing specific regions of the empire, as the royal court was nomadic and moved from one area to another.
One of the governor’s duties would have been to prepare festivities, feasts, and hunting excursions for the arrival of a royal party, as well as ordering gifts that were to be presented to the visiting rulers. A piece of inlaid metal would have made an appropriate gift at such an occasion, representing to nomadic rulers the craft that the governor’s region was famed for. The bearded official depicted on the bag might be the real individual that gave the actual Courtauld bag to the royals as a diplomatic gift, and that therefore the scene on the Courtauld bag depicts both the activities of the court in a general sense, and a specific event.
As I mentioned, it was initially assumed that the bag was a man’s wallet used to carry documents and seals. However, it is now considered that it was not a Prince’s bag, but a woman’s property, as visual evidence suggests. Many depictions of noblewomen in fourteenth-century Iran and Iraq show a bag being carried by her attendant. Paintings of Mongol women sometimes include a female attendant carrying a box, which holds the utensils for the lady’s toilette. Bags shown in depictions of the Il-Khanid court are seemingly made of embroidered silk or leather, and consequently likely to perish. A precious and intricately decorated object such as the Courtauld bag would have made a more lasting and appropriate gift to a visiting noblewoman, demonstrating the famed metalworking skills of Mosul. The bag may have served to contain objects such as those held by the servants on the Courtauld bag: mirrors, napkins, and perfume bottles; or maybe objects for the female toilette not appropriate for public display. This is why the Courtauld ‘wallet’ has been renamed a ‘bag’, and although this appropriately describes the function of the object, it does by no means justice to such an exquisite and glamorous object.