"Each part of the world recapitulates, shares in and experiences the history of the world as a whole"
Fernand Braudel

Marble transenna with ‘waq waq’ tree motifs

11th-12th century
Rectangular panel carved on both sides in low bas-relief. It corresponds to half of a high rectangular transenna. On both sides the decoration shows a large central section carved with a symmetrical vegetal pattern and fantastic creatures, apparently a variation of the waq waq tree motif, framed by a continuous band on the upper and lateral sides and by another band on the lower side. Face A. In the central section, the waq waq tree motif incorporates a winged human bust, a sphinx and a parrot. The upper frame consists of a sequence of four-lobed medallions enclosing single or paired harpies or double-headed eagles; the medallions are created by interlacing shoots of opposing pairs of fleur-de-lis. The lower frame features right-bound running lions on a field of curvilinear budded scrolls. Face B. In the central section, the waq waq motif incorporates a monocephalic double-bodied winged sphinx, a harpy, a horned dragon head, a winged lion, a winged human bust and a dog head with beaded collar. The upper frame consists of an interlaced pattern showing a sequence of octagons, each enclosing a different animal: winged lions, bulls and goats, griffons, elephants, peacocks, sphinxes. The lower frame features left-bound animals: a bird, two running winged quadrupeds, one being a lion, on a field of curvilinear budded scrolls. As far as the complexity of the composition and the skilfulness of the execution are concerned, this panel is a masterpiece of Ghazni marble carving. The compositions have been carefully planned with geometrical grids, and the motifs are very precisely carved in a low and slightly bevelled bas-relief, whose smoothness of execution and precision in the details, often incised, give liveliness to the motifs. The adjoining lateral face has a hole for a bracket. The waq waq tree motif becomes widespread in Islamic art in the 12th and 13th century. It originates from the mythological stories on the waq waq, a tree growing fruits having human or animal shape and constantly shouting “waq waq” (mentioned in Arabic literature since the 9th century), then assimilated to the talking tree of Iskandar – Alexander (narrated by Firdawsi in the Shahname, the epic poem written in Ghazni in the early 11th century). Its translation into a visual image in Islamic art happened probably through the mediation of an earlier iconographic motif of Turkic origin, representing animated scrolls (attested in Central Asian metalwork of the 5th-6th century). This transenna, attributed for stylistic reasons to the Ghaznavid period, is one of the earliest known representations of this motif in Islamic art. The combination of animals (exotic as the parrot and luxurious as the dog with beaded collar) and of fantastic figures (harpies, sphinxes, winged lions) with human figures (though winged and represented with the bust only), might suggest that in the Ghaznavid cultural horizon the waq waq tree and Iskandar’s talking tree were already blended. The many luxurious implications in this image, as the exotic parrot and the sumptuous beaded collar of a domesticated dog, is coherent with the royal court context. Together with the royal association of lions, the princely iconography evoked by both the crowned sphinxes and harpies and the crowned human figure, the eschatological connotations of harpies (as the bird-soul of the Central Asiatic shamanic funerary belief) fit both with Iskandar’s story – a royal personage whose end is predicted by the talking tree – and with the waq waq tree, a story set in an exotic island. The protective character of the dragon, sphinxes etc. add an apotropaic value to this representation. The animals and fantastic figures represented in the lateral bands further emphasize all these connotations.

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