Tag Archives: Mughal dynasty

Fish-Teeth and Friendship

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

Archer’s Ring; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1610–20; walrus ivory; courtesy Benjamin Zucker; photo by Neil Greentree

A leading gem connoisseur and collector from a long history of jewelers, Benjamin Zucker joins us Sunday to recall his worldwide travels to acquire precious stones. Hear about the Taj Mahal emerald that inspired his novel Green and the fourth-century Roman diamond in Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

And then there’s the walrus ivory archer’s ring, on view December 11–18. It was made four hundred years ago, when Jahangir ruled India’s vast and wealthy Mughal empire. He was introduced to walrus ivory, called “fish-teeth” in Persian, by his ally Shah Abbas, ruler of Persia (present-day Iran). Delighted by the material, he sent agents to Persia to acquire more “fish-teeth … from wherever and whomever at any price.”

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Detail, Emperor Jahangir Embracing Shah Abbas of Persia; folio from the St. Petersburg Album; signed by Abu’l Hasan (act. 1600–30); India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1618; opaque watercolor, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art, Purchase, F1945.9

Look closely at this painting, a vision from one of Jahangir’s dreams (click through to zoom in). He and Shah Abbas both wear rings designed to protect their thumbs during archery. (Jahangir’s ring also symbolizes friendship and brotherly affection.) The shah’s translucent ring is probably made of white jade; Jahangir’s is probably walrus ivory. Its brownish color makes it unlike any other archer’s ring we know today. We’re not sure whether the ring on display was made for Jahangir—but scientific tests have determined that it, too, was carved from walrus tusk.

See the ring and painting while they’re on view through December 18, and don’t miss Zucker’s talk on Sunday at 2 pm.

 

A Note on Walrus Ivory
Emperor Jahangir particularly desired “striated and mottled fish-teeth” from Siberia, which he described as beautiful. In the 1600s, people thought walrus tusks would reduce swelling and serve as an antidote to poison. Today, we focus on the long-term survival of the marine mammal. The US Fish and Wildlife Service may put the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, and several states are considering banning the trade of walrus ivory.

Friday Fave: Chape of a Scabbard

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Chape of a scabbard; India, Mughal dynasty, 17th century; iron inlaid with gold; H: 11.2, W: 3.8, D: 1.6 cm; Purchase—Misses Rajinder and Narinder Keith in honor of Mahinder Singh Keith, F1994.5

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

I first encountered this exquisite chape while visiting the Freer Gallery several years before I began to work here. Created in India during the seventeenth century, it is an ornamental covering for the tip of a scabbard. To my mind, it stands on its own as a work of art.

Indian art of the Mughal period is known for its sensitivity to detail and a delight in forms from the natural world. Like so much great Mughal art, this iron and gold chape exists as a world in itself—one you can return to again and again. And so I used to return to the Freer to rediscover it when it was on display. When it wasn’t, there were plenty of other marvels to enjoy, but I never forgot it and it was one of the first works of art I looked up when I arrived.

Like the leaves and flowers it depicts, the chape appears to have been created effortlessly by nature. It is possible to forget that a skilled artisan painstakingly etched out the fractal, interlocking plant forms and filled them with inlaid gold. There appear to be four or five kinds of flowers depicted—one of them a poppy—and six little butterflies lie nestled in the leaves. The intimate power of its scale and the economy of its form make the chape a marvel to behold. Yes, it was created for wealthy tastes that reveled in fine decoration, but from the vantage point of our consumer culture awash in mass-produced things, this little wonder is a reminder that the natural world is the original source of elegance. A true work of art speaks for itself and can be astonishing at any scale.