Court and Craft A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq – Islamic Metalwork at the Courtauld Gallery, London

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Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330.  Image courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery, London

Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330. Image courtesy of The Courtauld Gallery, London, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The Courtauld Gallery presents Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq.

The exhibition focuses on an Islamic inlaid brass bag made in Mosul, northern Iraq in about 1300.

Enhanced by forty works on loan from international collections, Court and Craft looks at the artwork of the bag, its origins and uses, and places the bag in its cultural context together with other important pieces from the period. 

Sponsored by Oryx Petroleum and GardaWorld, Court and Craft A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq is guest-curated by Rachel Ward, formerly of the British Museum.

The History of the Courtauld Bag

The bag came to the Courtauld in 1966 through a bequest from the family of Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888). A keen traveller and collector of early Italian paintings, Renaissance maiolica, enamels, glassware, medals, and Gothic ivories, Gambier Parry also amassed a fine collection of Islamic metalwork.

Acquired in 1858, possibly during a visit to northern Italy and the Dalmatian cost, the bag was originally described as ″an oriental box.″ Gambier Parry revised this description in 1960 to ″a cartouche box.″ Obviously, its function puzzled the collector at the time, and scholars are still debating its uses.

Although it is one of the rarest pieces of Islamic inlaid metalwork to survive from this period, we know little about this bag. Originally, thought to be a saddle bag, work-basket, wallet or document carrier, evidence now suggests it is a lady’s shoulder bag. The original owner may have been an important member of the court of the Il-Khanids, the dynasty established by Chinggis Khan (known as Genghis Khan in the west). The Il-Khanid court was luxuriously furnished with fine porcelains, silverwares, silks and enamelled glass. Enthusiastic patrons of fine art and architecture, the court employed only the most highly-skilled craftsmen to produce luxury items.

In this case the craftsman’s name is not known, but whoever made the bag must have had a detailed knowledge of the customs and costumes of the court to provide such a fascinating picture of princely life in the early fourteenth century.

Mosul Bag: The Artwork

Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery

Geometric patterns decorate the bag; Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The bag, inlaid with gold and silver, features intricate geometric patterns and roundels with images of musicians and horsemen.

Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery, London

The bag includes richly-decorated scenes and symbols. Image courtesy The Courtauld Gallery, London, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The bag’s most spectacular feature is the inlaid decoration of the lid.

An Il-Khanid court scene in miniature shows a richly dressed couple surrounded by attendants in Mongol costume and feathered hats. 

The image shows the high status of women in Mongol society.  Similar scenes appear in manuscripts from the period including the Khamsa of Kwaju Kirmani discussed below.

The attendants, who offer food and drink, carry the symbols of courtly life: a parasol, lute and falcon. The woman’s personal attendant stands at her side and suspended across his chest we see the woman’s bag.  A rhyming inscription written in Arabic frames the scene, which translates:

Glory and prosperity and (God’s) grace and eminence

And fulfilment of wishes and prudence in deeds

And respect and honour

And benevolence and decent act (?)

And undiminishing good-fortune

And uninterrupted happiness

And perfection and excellence

And that is all

A life-size display recreates the court scene, featuring items similar to those shown in the scene, including crescent-shaped earrings similar to those worn by the lady together with a Chinese mirror like the one held by the page and a Syrian glass bottle similar to the bottle on the table.

The Khamsa of Kwaju Kirmani.  BL Add. 18113, f.40v. Image courtesy of The British Library Board

The Khamsa of Kwaju Kirmani. BL Add. 18113, f.40v. Image courtesy of The British Library Board, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The Khamsa of Kwaju Kirmani

The exhibition includes one of the British Library’s most beautifully illustrated manuscripts, a book of poems by the Persian poet Kwaju Kirmani, written in Baghdad and marked Jumada 1 798 (March 1396).

Folio 40v shows a similar jewelled bag in the hands of an attendant to the Chinese princess Humayun, as she sits in a garden with her beloved Syrian prince Humay.

The Blacas Ewer

Mosul was the main centre for inlaid brass in the 13th century. These beautiful objects, often presented to rulers, were very prestigious, very fashionable. One of the finest examples from this period is the Blacas Ewer. The ewer pre-dates the Courtauld bag by about 100 years but is very similar in style.

Blacas Ewer, Mosul. Image courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Blacas Ewer, Mosul. Image courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum, used with permission, all rights reserved.

This piece is particularly important because the maker inscribed it, showing the place and date of manufacture: Mosul, Rajab 629 AH/April 1232 AD.

Engraved and inlaid with silver and copper, the brass ewe has panels depicting scenes of hunting, battles, musicians and courtly entertainment, set on a geometric ground.

Courtauld Bag: Rachel Ward

Curator Rachel Ward spoke to Decoded Arts about the Courtauld bag, she told us, We know that Gambier Parry bought it in 1858 when he travelled to northern Italy and the Dalmatian coast. We also know that he bought other pieces of metalwork from Venice, but we’re not sure exactly where he bought the bag. It might well have been Venice because there was a lot material in Venice of this sort, but it was somewhere probably in eastern Europe or northern Italy. We know that it’s been used within a European context… it’s had changes made to the loops. The little loops are silvered copper and are almost certainly a European addition. There’s a knob that was put on the top with another loop, and a hole in the front had a hasp, so it was made into a lockable jewellery casket.

Decoded Past: When did the bag come to England and how did it survive?

Rachel Ward: I don’t know when it arrived.  It survived because I think someone, very sensibly, thought to themselves this will look very good on my dressing table, and converted it into a sort of jewellery box, and that’s probably why it survived so well. It was always a special object and cared for.

Decoded Past: You’ve got some wonderful loans, such as the Khamsa, showing illustrations of bags similar to the Courtauld bag.

Rachel Ward: Yes,  I can’t tell you how lucky we are to have this manuscript loaned by the British Library.  It shows a scene of a couple – a love story. The lady, daughter of the Emperor of China, has attendants just to her right, one of whom is holding a bag of the same shape as the Courtauld bag, but it’s in gold. You can see that it’s encrusted with precious stones so there’s a possibility that there was a tradition of these objects being made in gold in this area.

Decoded Past: Apart from the bag, do you have a favourite item in the exhibition?

Rachel Ward: Yes, this little image of a noble lady walking with two pages is one of my most favourite images of all time. She’s wearing a dress that’s far too long for her, probably a mark of status, otherwise she would have had it hemmed. Because it’s so long she has two pages, one on either side, who have put a kind of cord underneath the fabric to lift it so that she was able to walk around the palace without sullying the dress. If you look closely, next to the pages’ thumbs, you can see the cord coming out. It was probably cloth of gold or some precious fabric. The reason this image is included in the exhibition is that the page on the right is wearing the lady’s bag. I thought it was important to include it because the other illustrations are enthronements and people might think it’s something like the Queen’s crown, only worn on formal occasions. This drawing shows that it was not just a ceremonial object, but like a modern handbag, it accompanied its owner at all times.

Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq is open until 18th May 2014.  Tickets and further information are available from The Courtauld Gallery.

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© Copyright 2014 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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