Qantara Qantara

Leyre Casket

Also known as the ‘Pamplona Casket’

  • Title/name : Leyre Casket
  • Author : Faraj workshop, under the supervision of the chief page Zuhayr ibn Muhammad al-‘Âmirî
  • Production place : Spain, Córdoba
  • Date / period : 395 H./1004-1005
  • Materials and techniques : Sculpted ivory (19 plaques of 1.4 cm thickness)
  • Dimensions : H. 23.6; W. 38.4; D. 23.7 cm
  • Conservation town : Pamplona
  • Conservation place : Museo de Navarra
  • Inscription :

    -Main inscription around the base of the lid in foliated Kufic script with bevelled staves:

    “In the name of Allah, Allah be blessed,

    prosperity, happiness and attainment of expectations

    from pious works, and respite from the appointed time

    of death to the hâjib Sayf al-Dawla, ‘Abd al-Malik,

    son of al-Mansûr, may God grant him success.

    [This is part of it] from that which was ordered to

    be made under the supervision of the chief page

    Zuhayr ibn Muhammad al-‘Amirî, his servant in

    the year three hundred and ninety-five.”

    -Inscription inside the lid: “This is the work of Faraj and his disciples”.

    -Front of the casket: on the princely throne on the right cartouche: ‘misbâh

    -Back of the casket: on the shield of the hunter in the central medallion: the signature ‘Khayr’ and “In the name of God, God be blessed, felicity and prosperity”. On the medallion on the left side, on the horses’ hindquarters, the signature of the sculptor: ‘…md ‘Âmir[î]’.

    -On the sides, inscribed on the hindquarters of a stag and a gazelle or antelope, the name of the sculptor: on the right medallion ‘Sa‘âd’ or ‘Sa‘abada’, ‘Rashîd’ on the left.

    -On the right side of the lid, on the calf of the hunter on the right, the signature ‘Faraj’.

This casket was made for ‘Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar and seems to have been commissioned to celebrate his victory from 1004-1005 over the kingdom of León, obtaining thus the caliphate of Hishâm II and the title of Sayf al-Dawla (‘Sabre of the State’). The casket was used during a number of centuries in the Leyre Monastery to store relics of the saints Nunilona and Alodia. Afterwards it was transferred to the church of S. María la Real de Sigüenza and then to the treasury of the Pamplona Cathedral.

Rectangular in shape, it has a truncated pyramidal lid. An uninterrupted plaited ribbon encloses twenty-one medallions: thirteen on the lid and eight on the body of the casket. The medallions are interlaced with vegetal motifs interspersed with birds, animals and figures.

The three medallions on the front of the body present scenes from courtly life. On the one to the right, a bare headed, bearded figure with moustache is seated on a throne that rests on two lions.

The man is wearing a ring on his left hand ring finger and holding a small bottle; in his right hand, a type of sword. It may be a portrait of the ruling caliph[1], flanked by his servants. The central medallion presents three musicians, seated and playing the lute, a horn and a double flute. On the left medallion, two men are seated on a throne that rests on two lions, intertwined with a stylized vegetal motif. The back of the casket is taken up in its centre by a medallion decorated with a hunter defending himself with a shield against two lions. Fighting scenes take up the lateral medallions. The lateral panels each have two medallions: those which encircle mythical animals in combat (griffons and unicorns), and those with quadrupeds with long horns being attacked by lions.

The two central medallions on the front and back panels of the lid represent horsemen-hunters. The medallions on either side of these two scenes contain two animals in combat: lions clutching gazelles, a frontal view of an eagle whose claws have caught two quadrupeds. The small sides of the lid are decorated with a peacock. In the space remaining are lion hunters and two lions, each one attacking a gazelle. Three medallions on top of the lid depict other animal combats: in the centre, an eagle clutching a hare in its claws; on each side, a lion clutching a gazelle. The overall layout of the motifs evokes that of contemporary textile designs[2].

The presence of different signatures on the piece, the various compositions and the overall style firmly indicate that this is a product of a royal workshop. The casket has been built out of different sculpted panels joined together. According to R. Holod, the workshop directed by Faraj was active for some forty years following the workshop that produced the masterpieces of Khalaf and of Durrî, the latter having produced some of the most ancient preserved ivory of this type in al-Andalus. The eight-lobed medallions and vegetal motifs on this Casket of Leyre are similar to earlier pyxides, such as the ‘al-Mughira pyxis[3] built some thirty years prior—a clear illustration of the perennial nature of the workmanship and techniques of the royal workshops. The placement of the inscription on the surrounding edge of the lid has many points in common with most of the ivory boxes of this period[4].

The themes related to the life of the court such as its festivities and the hunt form the basis of the visual language of the royal workshops. The choice of themes and their articulation allowed the craftsmen to compose messages. The possible representation of the caliph in one of the medallions underscores the official stamp of the title of Sayf al-Dawla given to ‘Abd al-Malik. Many of the scenes represented on the medallions and in the interstices refer to battles or to victorious animals, making allusion, perhaps, to ‘Abd al-Malik’s victory.

Sculpted ivory continued throughout the Taifa period, most notably in the workshops of Cuenca. We still have some later examples of this, especially from the Almohad and Nasrid periods[5]. From the onset of the Caliphates, there have been caskets made in other materials than this one, dedicated to Hishâm II[6].

This style of artwork can be compared to Byzantine and Fatimid ivories.


[1] Navascués y de Palacio, J., 1964, p. 246; Martínez-Gros, G.; Makariou, S., 2000.

[2] Such as the textile of Oña showing a seated figure carrying a small bottle, eagles with outspread wings, elephants… Cf. Casamar, M.; Zozaya, J., 1991, p. 39-6.

[3] Paris, musée du Louvre, Islamic art department, inv. OA 4068.

[4] Kühnel, E., 1971

[5] Cf. Al-Andalus:las Artes Islámicas en España, 1992, n° 50-52, p. 264-267.

[6] Gerona Cathedral, inv. 64.


Ferrandis, J., Marfiles Árabes de Occidente. vol 1, Madrid : Estanislao Maestre, 1935, p. 79-82.

Gómez-Moreno, M., El arte árabe español hasta los almohades, Madrid : Ed. Plus-Ultra, 1951, « Ars Hispaniae » vol. 3, Madrid, 1951.

Holod, R., « Arqueta de Leyre » in Al-Andalus: las artes islámicas en España, (cat. exp., Grenade, Alhambra/New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), Madrid : Ed. El Viso, 1992, p. 198-201, n° 4.

Holod, R., «Pamplona casket», in Al-Andalus : the art of Islamic Spain, (cat. exp., Grenade, Alhambra/New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), New York : J.D. Dodds, 1992, p. 198-201, n° 4.

Kühnel, E., Die Islamischen Elfenbeinskulpturen, Berlin : Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 1971, n° 35.

Lévi-Provençal, E., Inscriptions arabes d’Espagne, Leyde : E. J. Brill, 1931, n° 204, p. 189.

Navascués y de Palacio, J., « Una escuela de eboraria, en Córdoba, a fines del siglo IV de la Hégira (XI de J.C.) o las inscripciones de la arqueta hispanomusulmana llamada de Leyre », in Al-Andalus, n° XXIX, 1964, p. 204-206.

Silva Santa-Cruz, N., « Marfiles », in Momplet Míguez, A. E. (éd.), El arte hispanomusulmán, Madrid : Ed. Encuentro, 2004, p. 244-272, en particulier p. 266-267.


Casamar, M. ; Zozaya, J., « Apuntes sobre la Yuba funeraria de la colegiata de Oña (Burgos)», in Boletín de Arqueología Medieval, n° 5, 1991.

Martínez-Gros, G. ; Makariou, S., « Art et politique en al-Andalus », in Les Andalousies. De Damas à Cordoue, (cat. exp., Paris, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 2000) : Institut du monde arabe/Hazan, 2000, p. 72-79.

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