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.
How possible would it be to try to use the material elements of the I.P. (or similar work) to determine a chemical provenance or some such, and thus by tying it to a geographic era explore the socio-cultural of synchronism?