The fine quality of the silver inlay demonstrates the high standard of Mosul’s metalwork production at this time and the interlacing, geometric design throughout the case resembles that of a comparable penbox housed in The David Collection, Copenhagen (inv.no.6/1997). The most well-preserved silver inlay in this example is found in its interior. Jupiter is the first planet represented inside the penbox from left to right. Whereas the other planets had an identifiable human representation, Jupiter was the only planet lacking specific attributes and was, instead, commonly depicted by the zodiacs over which it was Planetary Lord - Pisces and Sagittarius (Carboni 1997, p.19). Here, the male figure holding two fish depicts Pisces and consequently portrays Jupiter. A comparable representation of Pisces also evoking Jupiter is found on a penbox in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (acc.no.89.2.194). The next planet adorning the penbox is Venus portrayed by a female playing a lute, before the Sun, the only figure not to be represented in human form on this piece, takes the central position among the planets. An association with light, energy and power rendered the sun a key motif of objects designed for rulers, governors and other affluent members of the court (Carboni 1997, p.9). Next, a female figure holding a crescent shape denotes the moon, and Mercury is the final planet, also known as al-katib 'the scribe', depicted by a young man writing a scroll.
Furthermore, such intricate ornamentation and inscriptions exemplify the importance accorded to the pen in administrative and diplomatic contexts in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Islam. In his study of letter writing in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, Gully discusses the metaphors which liken the pen to the tongue and the sword both of which demonstrate its associated power (Gully 2008, pp.50-71). Hence the penbox became a key indicator of the status of its owner indicated by its shape and decoration. Al-Qalqashandi, the renowned Mamluk historian (1355-1418) writes of the personal preference which dictated the choice of penbox. He states, “[t]he preferences of people of today with regard to the appearance of a pen case differ- (they like) either rounded or rectangular. Government scribes use long ones with round ends, elegantly shaped… As for treasury scribes, they use long square-cornered ones, so that they may put inside the covers of their pen case a minimum supply of the accounting paper they need, corresponding to the pen case in size” (Allan 1982, p.92).
Moreover, Ibn Muqlah, whose treatise on the Arabic script has shaped the language as we know it today, emphasises how the knowledge of Allah and his word is transmitted through the pen (’allama bi-l-qalam) (Naji 1991, p.114). Therefore, the preservation of the pen, and subsequently its case, is of extreme importance, a concept understood by al-Qalqashandi who stresses how “it is necessary for the scribe to do his utmost to adorn the pen case, to make it excellent and to look after it” (Allan 1982, p.92). The elegant decoration of this present penbox is evidently intended to adorn an item highly valued by its owner. The popularity of sophisticated astrological motifs in Islamic art is similarly related to their cosmic power which would protect and preserve the rulers, princes and wealthy citizens who would most likely be their owners (Carboni 1997, p.7). Notably, the imagery of Jupiter and Venus is associated with a beneficial power (Carboni 1997, p.4), heightened by the magnificent script on the inside and on the outer rim of the lid that calls for good fortune to be bestowed upon its owner.
In light of the lavish imagery of this present penbox, it surpasses its role as just a luxury object created for rulers and affluent members of the court, and reveals its symbolic significance in courtly, administrative and religious matters.
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