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Fernand Braudel

So-called “mihrab-like” panel in marble

datation
450 H. / 1058 CE
provenance
Ghazni
area
period
materials
themes
This rectangular marble panel is carved in low bas-relief. The decoration shows an arch with a hanging lamp, and is framed on three sides with an epigraphic band in cursive script mentioning the date of construction of the building. The text refers to a personage who built “this masjid” (mosque) and “mihrab” in the year 450 H/1058; but there is no mention of the mosque for which it carved – certainly not the more recent Abu’l-Fath mosque where it was employed as a mihrab and photographed in 1957. The arch carved on the panel has a horseshoe pointed shape with polylobated inner outline, and is supported by narrow cylindrical columns with bell-shaped capitals and bases. In the spandrels are two symmetric vegetal motifs, each made of a budded scroll encircling a trefoil leaf, with a second trefoil leaf springing from it. A lamp with globular body is suspended, by means of three chains, to a hook hanging from the top of the arch. Beneath the lamp there are two other inscriptions. The first, in a slightly foliated kufic with ornamental elements, reads al-mulk li-llah, “the sovereignty belongs to God”; the second – two lines enclosed in a rectangular panel, in much smaller, less refined kufic, with some of the letters tending towards the cursive script – mentions two personages, probably the people in charge of the construction. The overall decorative composition and the shape of the arch seem to have been geometrically planned, while the irregularities of the single motifs suggest that they were executed in free hand and without planning. The carving technique shows a certain degree of refinement: the bas-relief has rounded edges in the main inscription and in the vegetal motifs, while it is carved flat in the kufic script; the carving of the columns, enclave and lamp are rather more round, and deeper in the pictorial field within the arch. This panel is dated to an earlier datee, 450 H/1058, due to its iconographic and palaeographic features – the use of cursive script and the representation of a lamp hanging from an arch on architectural panels – that have been usually considered the expression of a later period. Cursive script was certainly employed in Ghazni already from the fourth decade of the eleventh century, since it is also found in three earlier dated examples: the epitaphs of the tombs of the Ghaznavid sovereign Mahmud (d. 1030) and of a certain Mahmud Harawi (d. 1040), and the arched frame in the name of the sovereign Mawdud, dated to 436 H/1044-45 CE. As for the lamp hanging from the arch, this is the earliest known depiction of this motif in Islamic art on an architectural panel (preceded by a miniature in a Quranic manuscript from San‘a’ dated 91-96 H/ 710-715 CE ca. (see also the hanging medallion-star in the late 9th century mihrab in the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, for iconological analogies). Reproductions of this motif on architectural elements will become recurrent from the 12th century, especially in funerary context, for example on Egyptian tombs and on Persian funerary monuments, but also on mihrabs. The Ghazni panel immediately precedes a lamp-arch motif painted in the tomb tower I in Kharraqan (1067-68 CE), but here there are no elements suggesting a funerary context, which implies that in this early period the motif had no (or not limited to) eschatological connotations; it might be significant that in Ghazni the lamp-arch motif is found on tombs only from the 12th century onwards. The motif on this marble slab is associated to a building text referring to the mosque where the slab was employed, and to its mihrab – almost enhancing the architectural vision evoked by the inscription. The religious character of the mentioned constructions suggests a more specific connection of this depiction to mosques (and mihrabs?), if not simply a devotional connotation; it is significant to note that a similar panel from Ghazni bears a Quranic quotation (Qur. IX.18) on the maintenance of mosques (now in the David Collection in Copenhagen, inv. 74 1979). While the main function of this panel was to celebrate the construction of the mosque and of its mihrab by its patron, the depiction of the lamp-arch motif might already have a religious connotation. About half a century later, the correlation of the ayat al-nur (the verse of light, Quran XXIV.35) to the lamp as image of the light of the faith will be established by al-Ghazali in the famous Mishkat al-Anwar (early 12th century), to which its diffusion is traditionally attributed. (Martina Rugiadi)

see also