Illustrated introduction to Mesopotamia, £8.99
Length: 19.700 cm
ME OA 1891.6-23.5
Room 34: The Islamic world
Cast brass pen-box made by Mahmud ibn Sunqur
From western Iran, AH 680 / AD 1281
Decorated with astrological scenes
This tiny penbox was designed to be treasured by its owner. The decoration is so fine that it is hard to appreciate unless held in the hand and every surface, including the base, is covered in precious inlays. The top of the lid bears roundels in three groups of four containing symbols of the zodiac with their ruling planets. For example, you can see the Sun in Leo (the sun rising behind the a lion) opposite Venus in Libra (a woman playing a harp beneath some scales). The interior of the lid has roundels containing the personifications of the planets alone: from right to left there is Saturn with his pick axe, Jupiter with a book, Mars with a sword and severed head, the Sun in the centre, Venus playing the lute, Mercury writing a document, and the Moon holding a crescent.
The base has two scenes of horsemen fighting one another or a double-headed dragon which may symbolize the solar eclipse. Every other available space between these images is filled with animal interlace in a never-ending scroll design emanating from a series of knots.
The signature of the craftsman is beneath the clasp and so would be hidden when the penbox was closed. Sadly the interior is lacking the ink and sand pots which would have been inserted within the right end.
R. Ward, Islamic metalwork (London, The British Museum Press, 1993)