There is a well-documented tradition of Fatimid carved bone and ivory panels depicting animals against a ground of scrolling arabesques. Most astonishing among these are the well-known panels with a wide variety of human figures that are now in the Bargello Museum in Florence, the Louvre Museum, Paris, and in the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin (Anna Contadini, 'Fatimid ivories within a Mediterranean Culture', Journal of the David Collection, vol.2,2, Copenhagen, 2005, pp.226-237). Many examples also exist with the figures placed within polygonal plaques that were originally part of geometric panels similar to those in this door, both depicting animals (Anna Contadini, Fatimid Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1998, pl.50) and human figures (Anthony Cutler, 'The Parallel Universes of Arab and Byzantine Art', L'Egypte Fatimide, son art et son histoire, Paris, 1999, fig.3, p.645).
After the Fatimid period there are very few figural ivories at all. In his exhaustive study of Islamic ivory carving Ángel Galán y Galindo re-attributes the Franks Plaques at the British Museum (normally previously thought of as probably Sicilian) to Ayyubid Egypt on the basis of somewhat speculative identification of the figures involved. He also re-attributes to the Ayyubid period eight pentagonal plaques formerly in the Kofler Collection in Lucerne, previously attributed by Kuhnel to the Fatimid period, each depicting a mythical or heraldic beast (Marfiles Medievales del Islam, vol.II, Cordoba, 2005, nos. 32001 and 32008, pp377-9). No figural ivories at all are attributed to the Mamluk period. Richard Ettinghausen, who saw our panel and wrote an academic appraisal in 1976, commented that the only 13th century animal found carved in ivory was an animal combat group that is the centre of the composition on a door in a lectern in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and that there were no 13th century Egyptian depictions of human figures in ivory.
The immediate impact made by our figural plaques is their extreme liveliness of movement. These are not at all like the Fatimid animals, viewed in near pure profile, even if the head is turned over the body as in the V&A hexagonal panel noted above. Here the artist has taken advantage of the shapes presented by the irregular haxagonal panels, and has consciously used these irregular fields to his advantage. He was certainly very aware of which position in the arrangement each piece was intended to be placed, so that he worked with the plaque in a particular orientation. The upper quadrants have animals that on the steeper slopes are carefully pacing downhill, with one, a horned deer, is baulking at the slope and skittishly shying away from it. The pentagonal panels noted above which Gálan y Galindo attributed to the Ayyubid period have a similar range of animals, including lion and harpy. The execution however is far cruder, the design all worked on a single plane and with none of the same sense of movement than is found here.
The range of mythical animals each placed on the upper slopes, including three different sphynxes, a winged lion, and a possible harpy is remarkable. This quantity and variety of mythical beasts is a feature of Ayyubid art, appearing on metalwork and stone amongst other media; see for example a stone capital sold in these Rooms 7 October 2008, lot 128 and now in the Aga Khan collection. Sphynxes seem to have been particularly popular, appearing on a number of examples of Lakabi pottery (L'Orient de Saladin, l'art des Ayyoubides, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2002, no.182, p.182 for example). Even more remarkable is the moulded sphynx in the David Collection which shares with the present carvings the rare feature of extra demonic heads at the upper ends of the sphynx's wings (L'Orient de Saladin, no.56, p.57).
While on the subject of the sphynxes, it should be noted in passing that there is one very fragmentary panel with very well preserved surface, very probably from a similarly shaped panel, depicting a sphynx on a scrolling ground, which is in the Louvre Museum, Paris (Wilfried Seipel (ed.), Schätze der Kaliphen, exhibition catalogue, Vienna, 1998, no.102, p.131). In all the published literature it is dated to the Fatimid period. It relates very closely to our panels, both in subject matter, and in the position, walking with the tail curling through between the back legs. Galán y Galindo groups it with all the other Fatimid polygonal plaque fragments, yet it has many differences from them, both in the execution of the figure, and particularly in the background arabesques which are much more energetically coiled, and have terminals not found on the other fragments, but found on many later carvings. We suggest that it, like our door, is also Ayyubid or early Mamluk.
The most remarkable of all the plaques here is the one with the seated human figure. It is the only such example carved in ivory known from the Ayyubid or Mamluk periods. In other materials the seated figure wearing a turban and holding a flaring cup across his breast in his right hand is frequently found, especially in metalwork. Frequently this figure is enthroned, as on the spectacular basin signed by 'Ali bin Abdullah al-Mawsili now in Berlin (L'Orient de Saladin, p.128), and on the bosses on a candlestick in the same institution (Joachim Gierlichs, Drache, Phönix, Doppeladler, Berlin, 1993, cat.60, pl.7, where the figure is seated surrounded by four winged lions). Our figure is slightly different in that his left hand is raised holding an attribute, a fruit or just possibly an orb. A similar seated figure on the Fatimid panel in Berlin has a raised left hand, but it is holding a bottle and pouring wine into his cup, so is very different from our figure. One further similar seated figure in ivory, but again without the raised left hand, is on a polygonal fragment in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo (Galán y Galindo, op.cit., vol.II, no.31027, p,367).
The stone capital mentioned above, as well as being a close comparable for the carved winged animals, also shows a strong parallel for the scrolling leafy designs that are found on the plaques on these doors, and also with the contrast of areas that are left smooth and areas which were originally much more densely worked, traces of which remain. This is a feature also of the wonderful quality Fatimid carved panels which were mentioned at the start of this note, and it can be demonstrated that it continued through to the early Mamluk period as seen in the Coptic carvings of scenes in the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Gawdat Gabra and Marianne Eaton-Krauss, The Treasures of Coptic Art in the Coptic Museum and churches of Cairo, Cairo and New York, 2006, pls.146-149). .
Dating the arabesques precisely is not easy. They are similar in design to a number of other examples, many of whose exact provenance is unfortunately not known. A number of plaques of identical form and similar decoration are published with dates anywhere from the 12th through to the 14th century. A door in the Gillot Collection contained a number of very close parallel pieces, (sold in our Paris salesroom, 4 march 2008, lot 48). That door we argued dated from around 1320.
While the animal carvings owe much to the Fatimid tradition, their selection, the detailing, and the carving of the floral scrolls mean that a date from the Ayyubid or very early Mamluk period is much easier to support. This is a remarkable door panel, unique in the published literature, the only known Ayyubid or Mamluk figural ivory inlaid panel.
A carbon date on a sample from one of the arabesque ivory panels from this door, performed by RCD RadioCarbon Dating, reference RCD-7068, on 9 February 2009, gives a 68 probability of 1260-1310 plus 1360-1390, and a 95 probability of 1240-1330 plus 1340-1400 AD, confirming the proposed dating of this lot.
AN IMPORTANT LATE AYYUBID OR EARLY MAMLUK COMPOSITE IVORY INLAID WOODEN DOOR
Comprising thirty-four polygonal larger panels each inlaid with a central ivory plaque arranged in a large geometric composition centred on two twelve-pointed stars each made of two symmetrical panels, the stars radiating towards twelve polygonal arrow head shaped panels, with four groups of three similar panels above and below pointing towards each corner, further carved ebony panels completing the geometrical composition, the twelve panels in the corners with finely carved foliage, sixteen of the radiating compositions carved on two levels, each with a very fine trefoil palmette in the centre flanked by two split palmettes over denser foliage, the remaining ten figurative panels with mythical beasts and animals carved against a deeper foliage each elegantly depicted in a lively position, the plain recent wood backing inset with four contemporary rectangular wooden panels, areas of wear
13th Century, paneling, Furniture & Lighting, architectural, ebony, ivory, wood, Egypt, Ayyubid (1171-1250) , Mamluk (1250-1517)
48 1/8 x 17¾in. (122.3 x 45.1cm.)
Fritz Collection, by 1976, as noted by Ettinghausen.
Purchased through Richard Hall, New York by the present owner by 1979.