Monday, 24 September 2012

The Artuqid Plate

Part of our purpose here at Beyond Borders is not only to share our own scholarly insights, but also to perpetuate an academic discourse about art during the global Middle Ages via our posts.  So, with this in mind, my contribution this month will focus upon an object that is multivalent, and through its layered complexity, allows many queries to be raised about its intended purpose and meaning. It is my hope that you (our readers) will comment upon the considerations I propose and formulate additional questions and/or suggestions about this interesting object.

Within my studies of Islamic artefacts, at times I have fortuitously discovered an object that, due to the contents of its textual and visual programme, questions the cultural origins to which it has been assigned. The twelfth century Artuqid Plate is such an object. The Artuqid Plate, also known as the Innsbruck Plate (the latter attribution is based upon the fact that it is part of the collection of the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Austria), contains illustrations that are reminiscent of both Islam and Byzantium. The artistic programme of this plate is universal enough to be seen in both Christian and Islamic regions, which may be interpreted as a clear example of cultural translation. However, this cultural translation, in turn, places this object in the conundrum of being either both Islamic and Christian or neither.

Overall the Innsbruck Plate is enameled with gilded metal. It is important to note that enamel work was not part of the repertoire of Islamic craftsmanship, but instead was more reflective of Byzantine artisanship. Both the interior and the exterior of the plate have been decorated in a similar style and the handles are a later European addition. According to Scott Redford, the plate was most likely produced in Georgia, which was periodically located in or on the fringe of Islamic empires. Per Scott Redford, the probable production of the plate in Georgia explains the use of enamel since the art created within this area was generally derived from Byzantine prototypes. The Innsbruck Plate has many illustrative features, but this post will focus upon the roundels and inscriptions on the front side of the plate. The other aspects of the plate are also significant, but will not be addressed in an effort to keep this post succinct.

The front of the plate is comprised of three sections, which will be discussed individually. The first section may be defined as the central roundel, which depicts the apotheosis of Alexander (Alexander’s glorification to a divine level). The second section is composed of the six roundels that surround the central circle and illustrate fighting scenes and frontally depicted birds. The third section is the outermost area (the lip of the plate) and is composed of inscriptions, which contain the names, titles and genealogical information of an Artuqid ruler.

Within the first section (centremost roundel) Alexander is holding two sceptres that more or less form an X or Chi. The tips of the sceptres are adorned with forms that are reminiscent of either fish or flowers, both of which embody Christian symbolism. Alexander is also flanked by what has been identified by scholars as two griffins. The griffin is a mystical creature whose varied symbolic meanings date back to antiquity. The griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature, which was used to guard precious possessions and safeguard against evil and witchcraft. An example of the griffin’s symbolism may be seen in Christendom where the duality of the griffin (its amalgamation of lion and eagle) was considered to be representation of the human and divine natures of Jesus. There are many more attributes associated with the griffin, and it may be suggested that the use of such a symbolically powerful and multivalent creature within the visual programme of the Innsbruck Plate, not only speaks of the authority of Alexander, but also of the overall symbolism of the plate.

The next section is composed of six roundels that surround the central circle. These roundels depict front facing animals and animals in combat, which may represent political prowess (associated with either Christianity or Islam), a religious meaning, or both. On one hand, it may be interpreted that the frontally illustrated birds are eagles, the evangelist symbol of John. The depictions of a halo above the eagle’s head and of the eagle grasping a snake should be noted because it may refer to evangelist imagery. On the other hand, these birds or eagles may not refer to the Evangelist John, but instead were depicted to portray an association with the tree of life, which may be the symbolic meaning associated with the illustrated trees that serve as part of the surrounding background. Other figures such as dancers and acrobats are also part of the background imagery.

The third section of the plate is the outer rim, which is composed of two lines of script, Arabic (interior) and Persian (exterior). The inscriptions are a list of titles, epithets, and names associated with the genealogy of the Artuqid rulers. Redford notes that the inscription is of poor quality and is also confusing because the manner in which the names are inscribed does not make genealogical sense. Additionally, according to Redford, the text seems to be written in a script that is described as handwritten Naskh, but is generally difficult to assign a cursive style to due to its general illegibility.

            The Innsbruck Plate holds many symbolic meanings, many of which could not be fully explored in this contribution. However, I hope this brief introduction to the plate will spark further inquiry.  Here are some of my considerations I would like to share:

*The number of roundels should be explored in relation to Christian and Islamic religious ideologies, astrology and cosmology.

*What is the significance of the images within the roundels in comparison to the background of the decorative programme?

*The Innsbruck Plate falls within a gray area of cultural origin. Should these items be considered a product of the socio-cultural inhabitants of the region instead of their religious affiliations? At this point, the recognition of cultural translation will be a necessary aspect of evaluation instead of an optional inquiry.


Redford,Scott. ‘How Islamic Is It? The Innsbruck Plate and Its Setting,’ Muqarnas, 7 (1990), 119-13.

Grabar, Oleg. ‘The Crusades and the Development of Islamic Art,’ in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, Dumbarton Oaks, (2001), 235-245.

Monday, 17 September 2012


As some of you may know, I have recently started teaching High School AP Art History in my home state of South Carolina. It’s been a rough month of adjustments, but I have come to love my students and their enthusiasm and am enjoying teaching the next generation of academics.  This week we spent some time looking at Byzantine and Islamic art, some of my favourite. The art of the East is unfamiliar to the majority of my students, having only been exposed to some of the more recognized Western works of art like the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Monet’s Water-Lily Pond.  My high school seniors were fascinated with the geometric patterns and ornate architectural creations of the East, thus inspiring my post for this week: the minaret.The minaret, unlike the mihrab and minbar of the mosque, has not been subject to the same in-depth study when discussing symbolic significance in Islam. It is the location where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer and has become a necessity in mosque design, especially as populations increased. Older mosques are accompanied by one or two minarets, whereas later mosques, or mosques in more progressive cities, have multiple. The need for several minarets at heavily populated locations, like Mecca, is so the call can be heard in all directions of the city. The original Muslim place of worship, the house of Muhammad, had no such structure and the daily calls to prayer were made from the roof of the house. Minarets are not noted until eighty years after the death of the Prophet and are perhaps an adaptation of Christian bell towers.  The similarities between minarets and bell towers involves height, duality as a guard tower, and as a location to announce church services and calls to prayer. However, light is a significantly more important feature in minarets and is exemplified in the word’s etymology.

            The religious purpose of the minaret is to announce the five daily prayers, but the name ‘minaret’ is what connects us to the topic of sacred light. The origins of ‘minaret’, manārah, means ‘lighthouse,’ and has the inclusion of the word nār, meaning ‘fire.’1 Arabic poems make reference to the light of a monk’s cell as he transcribes the word of God, and this is perhaps how the word came into being.2 In turn, a lantern is often placed in the mihrab as representation of the ‘light’ of Allah.3 The Koran references this sacred light in 24:35.

This same idea is applied to the minaret for the evening prayer. The muezzin climbs to the top of the minaret and makes the call to prayer, his path lit by a small lantern that flickers out to the faithful who prepare for the fifth paying of homage. The etymology of the word certainly implies religious significance to the light of Allah shining out into the darkness for prayer. Again, the idea of sacredness and light is more often linked to the lighting of the mihrab, but the action of lighting the way to the mosque is certainly intentional and symbolic and it is important that the minaret is recognized alongside its architectural counterparts.
As mentioned, minarets are relatable to Christian bell towers. The sacredness of light is more prominent in minarets, but the dual functions of both towers and minarets make them great subjects of comparability. Having a location of great height is important in both Christian cities of the West and Islamic cities of the East for means of protection. Guard towers were likely to exist in Muslim cities and it was possible that doubling the guard tower as a place for call to prayer followed the design of Christians residing in the East. One example of a minaret with a potential history of acting as a guard tower is the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan (above).The minaret of Kairouan is the oldest surviving minaret in the Maghreb region (Northwest Africa) and dates to either the reign of Umayyad caliph Hicham Ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (724-743) or Ziyadat Allah I (817-838), to whom the mosque is attributed to.4 The facade facing the interior of the structure features square windows with bricked lunettes on a three-tiered building,while the outer facing walls are dotted with small slits serving as holes for defensive weaponry.5 This confirms the minaret’s militaristic use.     

The third floor was remodelled in the thirteenth century, complete with a large lantern. It should be noted that in some Islamic sanctuaries, Christian bells were taken as a means of spolia and repurposed as chandeliers.6 This is symbolic of the rise of Islam overpowering the existence of Christianity and the light of Allah out-shining Christian practices.  The sacred light of Allah and the call to prayer create a theological interpretation of the minaret as an architectural feature. Although it could not be said if the religious functions out-shine the more militaristic use of towers, the domineering message of Islam over Christianity, and the protection the tower provides against invaders creates a sense of cultural strength in this architectural feature.


[1] "Definition of Minaret." Accessed March 05, 2012.
[2] Gottheil, Richard J.H. "The Origin and History of the Minaret." Journal of the American Oriental Society 30, no. 2 (March 1910): 132-54. Accessed March 7, 2012.
[3] Michon, Jean-Louis. "The Message of Islamic Art." In Introduction to Traditional Islam, Illustrated: Foundations, Art, and Spirituality, 72. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008.
[4] "Minaret De La Grande Mosque De Kairouan." Qantara Mediterranean Heritage. Accessed March 09, 2012.
[5] Ibid.                                                 
[6] Guidetti, Mattia. "Spolia." Lecture, Interactions of Islamic and Christian Art within the Islamic World, Class at University of Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 14, 2012.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Some thoughts on the animals in the Book of Kells

              The borders I decided to write about today are in fact not the borders between different human cultures, as we have discussed so far in our blog posts, but the borders between species and their expression in the Book of Kells. It has already been observed that the animals in the initial and interlinear décor in the manuscript have a meaningful relation to the text. The images are understood as visual exegesis of the textual material. The birds for example have been observed to frequently appear in a christological context and I would suggest that similarly the quadrupeds in large number appear in a negative context, as the wicked antagonist.1 This visual exegesis is indeed very revealing about the many meanings that can be found in the Book of Kells, however, I can not help but wonder if there is more to these creatures. Maybe it might be promising to consider these animals not solely as the symbolic expression of the textual meaning, not 'just' as visual exegesis, but also as manifestations of the cultural body of the respective animal species, as expression of the cultural relationship between humans and animals. 

              Such relationships are more evident in textual sources. T. A. Shippley notes that there is 'sense of fear and danger' present in The Fortunes of Men, a poem from the10th century Exeter Book, telling of the many tragic ways a man's life can take. Among these it also mentions that some men 'the wolf, the grey heath-prowler, will eat.'2 Thereby joining death-by-animal in with starvation, blindness, hanging and accidents and thus presenting being killed by an animal as a very unfortunate, yet very real, way of ending a life. Such events are further reflected in a reference in Maxims I (C): 'A unhappy man who has no friends takes wolves as his companions, most treacherous beasts. Very often his companion tears him. One should fear the grey beast, give a dead man a grave. But the wolf laments its hunger, will by no means circle the grave with a dirge, certainly will not weep for the death and for men being violently killed; it always wants more.'3 Whether this passage is to be understood, like some others of the Maxims proverbial or not, it without question gives evidence to the negative associations with wild animals that prevailed within Anglo-Saxon culture.

              In the lives of saints animals are, quite to the contrary, often helpful encounters for the holy figures and 'willingly override or renounce their naturally bestial inclinations.' Whether St Cuthbert's otter or St Anthony's lions, the animal's role in these stories is to assist not to attack. However positive the light may thus be in which the animals appear in these stories, they do so because they recognise the protagonist as a saint.4 The helpful animal is a miracle, a wonder only possible because of the holiness of the character, but not part of the normal behaviour of the creature. In reverse this implies that the normal relationship with animals is usually not perceived as pleasant, their bestial nature resonates in their domination through the saints.

              As Isabel Henderson has shown there are connections to Pictish culture present within the Book of Kells, thus their attitude towards nature might have been shared to a certain extent by the Anglo-Saxons, making a short consultation of the Pictish material worthwhile.5 Henderson noted that the visual evidence suggests 'an enduring Pictish cultural preoccupation with the complex nature of animal force, man's respect for it, and fear of it.'6 The surviving depictions of monstrous beasts attacking humans in Pictish sculpture might refer to a very real threat that must exist within every hunter society: the hunter becoming the hunted. Imagining a hunt gone wrong by the stalker being surprised by a carnivore himself does not prove difficult, yet it emphasises the ambiguous relationship of such a culture to animals and nature, being both sustained and endangered by them. A similar anxious aspect might have prevailed in Insular culture due to the myth of the creation of the world, according to which humans should 'rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals'.7 In this context Jeffrey Cohen has stressed the anthropocentrical meaning of animals and their roots in the idea of human dominance.8 Yet, it were these subordinate creatures that also posed a threat to every human being entering their territory. So it is neither a surprise that it were these areas that were, according to Asa Mittman, perceived as 'dark and foreboding places, well-suited for their monstrous inhabitants' nor that there is a 'unfamiliar hostility towards the natural world' found in Anglo-Saxon literature.9 The choice for the quadruped in the Book of Kells as a symbol for the wicked and the blind might therefore not only be based on the textual basis and on literal tradition, but an expression of the Insular discomfort of being appointed superior and consumer of the animal world, while being at the same time its victim, the consumed. Similarly might the bird in this context also go beyond the mere tradition of its symbolism and betray the general relation of humans to these animals?
              I believe these creatures to be expressions of the anxieties of the object’s contemporaries , their fears and their complex relationship to the world around them. These marginal creatures therefore not only show concepts and ideas that existed in the monastic Insular world, but reveal a glimpse of the contemporary perception of the world in general.


1 See Pulliam, Heather, Word and Image in the Book of Kells (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), 126-130.
2 Shippey, T.A., Poems of Wisdome and Learning in Old English (Cambridge: Brewer, 1976), 11-12, 58-59.
3 Ibid. 12-19.
4 Salter, David, Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature (Woodbridge: Brewer, 2001), 19.
5 Henderson, Isabel, 'Pictish Art and the Book of Kells', in Ireland in Early Medieval Europe, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick, David Dumville (Cambridge, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), 91-94.
6 Henderson, Isabel, Pictish Monster: Symbol, Text and Image (Cambridge: Dep. of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, Univ. of Cambridge, 1997), 51-52.
7 Gn.1:26
8 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, 'Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages' in Engaging with Nature, Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt, Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press,2008), P. 42. See Steel, Karl, How to make a human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2011), P. 29-44 for a study of the concept of human dominance over animals.
9 Mittman, Asa S., Maps and Monsers in Medieval England (New York: Routledge, 2006), 122, 135.