Explaining the context and symbolism behind the Pyxis of al-Mughira and how its interpretation has changed through time and space.

The emergence of intricately emblazoned ivory objects became a way to exhibit one’s wealth and stature in tenth-century Spain. These carvings that are adorned with wild beasts and flourishing plants were the fruit born from the Umayyad dynasty. From Al-Andalus came a tradition of exquisite ivory carvings that befitted only the affluent figureheads of the time. The pyxis of al-Mughira has been assumed to be made in the workshops of Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba, Spain under the rule of Al-Hakam II. The palace workshops were famed for their production of royal and luxury commodities and brilliant artisans and craftsmen. The arrival of a new age in the Iberian Peninsula, came with it the introduction of a new style of art, materials, techniques, and culture. Ivory carvings specifically surfaced in the peninsular under the rule of ‘Abd al- Rahman III.

The Pyxis itself represents an extension of the Al-Andalus empire – its value is not only limited to what it is and its functionality but where it came from and what it symbolises. Epitomising power and wealth, it is commissioned and reserved for the caliph only. Despite the specific creator being unknown, it is believed that they were exceptionally skilled to as be trusted with the task of creating an object for the most powerful man at the time. It must have been an overwhelming responsibility to accept a commission of this standard, but a craftsman who is familiar with the Umayyad Dynasty’s greatest political figures is assumed to have integrity and dexterity in his artistic practice.

Made of ivory, a precious and sought-after material popularised due to its durability and beauty, it was a material that befitted royalty and demonstrated exclusive access to such an illustrious material. Caliphs were gifted ivory diptychs and pyxis adorned with gold and jewels and the greatest war generals and most formidable soldiers were endowed with ivory swords with religious scripture carved into the hilt – ivory was reserved only for those of exceptional status and wealth, not just those within the nobility. Ivory objects were used as caliphal gifts to create allies and relationships with other kingdoms such as the Berbers. They were also stolen as war plunder and used for an entirely different purpose than it was created for, such as the Pyxis of Braga which is now at the Cathedral of Braga in Portugal.

Created in circa 968, The Pyxis of al-Mughira was produced as a coming-of-age gift for the 18-year-old prince, al-Mughira, brother of the caliph al-Hakam II and the youngest son of the deceased caliph Abd al-Rahman III. Iconography and style vary depending on who it is given to – if it is made for a woman, iconography and imagery often include floral vegetation and beautiful birds often in pairs such as peacocks. This style of design symbolises female fertility and beauty and the “continuation of the Umayyad dynastic line.”[1] However, this specific piece is rich in imagery of wild animals, floral and vegetation, depictions of scenes and Kufic inscriptions.

The pyxis is divided into four medallions rotating around its cylindrical body, given that the measurements of the object are 16cm x 11.8cm, the detail and precision to create these images are executed without fault. Despite the belief that Islamic art is aniconic, the container has an abundance of beasts and birds as well as depictions of humans, and they all have correlations and references to famous Arabic poems.

The first medallion depicts the scene of two men taking eggs from the nests of falcons while each man is bitten by a dog at their feet. There are 8 small circular points bordering the two men, each side perfect in its symmetry and detail. The taking of eggs represents the desire for legitimacy in the royal bloodline, and the bird being of all things a falcon is a reference to the founder of the Umayyads, ‘Abd al-Rahman I al-Dakhil, who was given the title of “Falcon of Andalus” or “The Falcon of the Quraish.”[2] The message of this medallion is clear: to continue al-Rahman’s prosperous legacy by keeping the lineage clean and within the bloodline. The dogs biting at their feet insinuate opposing forces who are actively trying to threaten their power, but they are seen merely as dogs at their feet.

The next medallion detail two men horseback riding, picking dates from a beautiful palm tree which is the focal point of the scene. Surrounding them are parrots, monkeys and details of foliage and symmetrical patterns. “The use of visual imagery which is also found in the poetry of the era demonstrates that these two art forms were in communication.”[3] This imagery of date-picking may allude to the Abbasid’s conquering of Umayyad territory, a land rich in palm trees bearing fruit that is now lost. 

Another medallion depicts two lions combatting two bulls, symbolising the reoccurring view of royal succession and perseverance to defeat intimidating opponents. The two men in this are assumed to be the two sons of al-Hakam II, the second Umayyad caliph of Al-Andalus. It is a very masculine and volatile scene that will reflect the reality and future predicaments that Prince al-Mughira would have to expect in his position. The pyxis may have been commissioned by the prince’s mother, al-Mushtaq, to be given to him as a gift for his coming of age. If this is true, then it’s very territorial imagery is coming from a woman who is said to have been a “great authority in the caliphal household”[4], wanting only the best for her son and envisioning him as all the things depicted in the medallions. However, this is only a theory and cannot be confirmed.

The final medallion exhibits a musical scene; two seated men on either side of the central figure each holding an instrument. It is a court scene where one figure represents the Umayyads, and the other represents the Abbasids. In Fransisco Prado-Vilar’s “Enclosed in Ivory: The Miseducation of al-Mughira”, he argues that this scene serves as a political reminder for the continuation of the empire.

The inscription that adds the finishing touches to this glittering gift reads around the base of the lid in Kufic script, “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.”

This is interesting given that despite not being named the next heir, al-Mughira is still a possible contender for the position. The entirety of the object is heavy in its princely depictions, royal symbolism, and reference points to famed Arabic poems about the great caliphs, yet it’s given to someone who isn’t destined to be a caliph. The reason for the pyxis being commissioned and who by is unknown, but there are many theories by scholars and critics alluding to the answers. For example, there are debates on whether this was given as a gift ironically to the prince, but even that can be refuted because it would be an immensely luxurious gift to give simply in irony.

The iconography of the lions attacking the bulls and the musical court scene has the possibility of being a hidden message for al-Mughira. He was the youngest son of Abd al-Rahman III who had unfortunately passed while he was young and therefore wasn’t destined to assume the role as caliph and ruler. His brother, al-Hakam II was the second Umayyad caliph in Al-Andalus, and he also died soon after in 976 AD. The young prince was then seen as a threat to Hisham II, who became the third caliph of the Umayyad after he ordered the execution of al-Mughira and his followers. Their demise and sacrifice resonate within this pyxis and makes it even more precious. A case carved from the tusk of an elephant and embellished with exceptionally meticulous iconography, belonging to an executed prince from one of the greatest empires in human history is of boundless political and cultural significance.

The Pyxis of al-Mughira is now in Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, held in the Islamic Art Department. It is unknown how the museum acquired the object and if it is on display or in archives. But regardless, the functionality and purpose of the object have changed entirely. Once used to store cosmetics, perfumes, and jewels of royalty, often sitting within the walls of a palace bedroom, to now holding nothing and taken from the personal and intimate setting to one of the public domains. This masterpiece produced by exceptionally respected yet unknown craftsmen specifically for a member of the royal family is now under the roof of one of the richest museums in the world. It could be correlated that it travelled from one affluent and powerful unit to another, an item of this extravagance will always be protected and secured no matter where it goes due to its historical and cultural importance.

Given that it’s unknown how the Louvre acquired it, it can be argued that it’s somewhat unethical to hold such a culturally significant object in a foreign country. The idea of colonialism and the authority museums have of taking an item away from its homeland gives off the impression that either modern-day Portugal and Spain did not strive to keep to the piece, or it was taken away from them. If the latter is true, it means the pyxis once had great prominent power to its country, and now doesn’t even remain there. It transformed from being something treasured by the Al-Andalus empire to not being taken back from the Louvre.

However, being at the Louvre comes with more accessibility, and with that comes more theories of interpretation and ideas. For example, was it a gift given to the youngest son in jest or was it truly a meaningful gift to award his age? Who commissioned it, and did they select the scene designs or was that chosen by the artist themselves? These answers remain unsolved, but what is known is the vivid historical and political significance of this ivory pyxis and what it represents. It represents the authority and power that the caliphs held, the significance of retaining the bloodline and warding off rivals, the synchronisation of art and poetry at the time and what it means to be a noble prince.


Bibliography

[1] Francisco Prado-Vilar, “Circular Visions of Fertility and Punishment: Caliphal Ivory Caskets from Al-Andalus,”

Muqarnas 14 (1997): 19–41.

[2] W. Montgomery Watt. “Islamic Surveys 4: A History of Islamic Spain.” (Edinburgh, Scotland; Edinburgh University. Press, 1965, page 17.

[3] Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay, “Pyxis of al-Mughira,” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed December 20, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/pyxis-of-al-mughira/.

[4] Anderson, Glaire. (2015). A mother’s gift? Astrology and the pyxis of al-Mughīra. Journal of Medieval History. 42. 1-24.

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