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Ewer Decorated with the Signs of the Zodiac

ca. 1220

This ewer is a remarkable example of ornamental metalwork from the late 12th or early 13th century, when the town of Herat in present-day Afghanistan and the neighbouring province of Khorasan became the principal centres of production. Apart from the separately cast and attached handle, it was made from a single sheet of hammered copper. Silver inlay work, little practised at the beginning of the Islamic era, developed between 1140 and 1220.

The overall decoration in superimposed registers consists of rich figurative motifs and votive inscriptions in kufic, cursive and animated scripts. Each of the twelve sides is adorned with a different sign of the zodiac and its dominant planet.

Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi/ Photo: APF

During the 12th century, growing interest in "ilm ahkam al-nujum" (astrology) led to the introduction of an astrological iconography into the art of metalwork, as exemplified by the precious item presented here. The first objects of metal with astrological decorations appeared during the century in an area stretching from Jazira (northern Syria, Iraq and south-east Anatolia) to Khorasan. These motifs are later found on objects made in Syria and Egypt in the 13th and 14th centuries. Starting from the left of the handle, we recognize the constellation of Aries, represented by Mars, the warlike planet, illustrated with the attributes of a sword and a severed head. Taurus is associated with Venus playing the oud. The twins of Gemini hold one another around a rod with heads of monsters at the top and bottom.

Next is Cancer, associated with the crab, whose pincers form the shape of a heart, and Leo, the solar sign since Antiquity. Virgo holds ears of corn. Venus in Libra is represented between the two plates of a pair of scales. Scorpio brandishes scorpions. Sagittarius is illustrated by a centaur with bow and arrow, and Capricorn by an ibex ridden by Saturn, a bearded old man holding a tool. Aquarius waters the earth from a well built of brick. On the bottom of the handle, Jupiter is represented by a figure with crossed legs holding a fish in either hand.

Artwork Details

Title: Ewer Decorated with the Signs of the Zodiac
Geography: Herat, Afghanistan
Date: ca. 1220

Medium: copper alloy, silver

Classification: container, vase, tableware
Dimensions: 38 x 21 x 19 cm
Inventory number: LAD 2013.053
Contact for images: [email protected]


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