Casket, Sicily, 12th century. Ivory, brass, tempera, and gold leaf, 9.5 x 15.9 x 9.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Samuel P. Avery Endowment, 1926.389. Photograph courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY
This ivory box, or casket, was made in Sicily, where the Arabic-speaking Muslim population contributed significantly to a unique visual culture. It is economically fashioned from thinly cut pieces of elephant ivory held together with ivory pegs. The presence of a lock and lock plate made of gilded brass, a copper alloy, indicates that the casket’s contents were precious. The delicate ornamental motifs, rendered in tempera and applied gold leaf, are complemented by an inscription in Arabic, “May glory endure.” With its combination of ivory, copper and gold, the box speaks to the circulation of precious materials important to trans-Saharan trade.