Side view of

The Pila

an Islamic Ablution Basin, early to mid 11th century

A larger image of the side of The Pila, an Islamic Ablution Basin, early to mid 11th century, Xativa, Spain

The basin known as the Pila de Játiva is a shallow trough of pinkish marble that is decorated on each of its four sides with animated and textured figural reliefs. It is extraordinary for the boldness of these carvings and for the lively way they evoke a world of aristocratic leisure.
    The reliefs are disposed along the exterior of the basin in bands that are separated into panels on the long sides by medallions. The scenes depicted all correspond to established iconographical types, most of which were identified by Eva Baer: a lutanist or ʾud player; a reclining gentleman who drinks in a garden; a drinker with a servant; an entertainment including combatants with staffs and musicians; wrestlers; an offering procession of people carrying deer, fowl, and fruit; a nude nursing woman; combatant lions; confronted lancers; and peacocks with intertwined necks.1 Drinkers, entertainers, musicians, and animals such as those shown here are among the key images in a caliphal and Taifa luxury arts tradition in which representations of princely leisure are seen as emblematic of the license that resides in princely authority. The closest parallels in subject matter can be found on the ivory Pamplona casket (No.4), which dates from the beginning of the eleventh century.
    Many of the Játiva basin's themes are familiar, and figural marbles have been excavated in a number of palatine settings, yet such a lively detail, long side shown in overall view and densely populated composition is unusual in al-Andalus : Here images of animals and humans are more commonly static, encased in medallions, and woven into a jungle of foliage that serves to neutralize their vitality and verisimilitude. Recognizing the unusual energy and the prominence of the figures in the Játiva basin, scholars have struggled to find in their depictions a literal or narrative meaning. Most recently Baer has suggested that the reliefs represent "rather popular or bourgeois scenes of pastimes" and not aristocratic ones, and that the central themes of drinking and entertainment constitute "a close to life genre scene."2 Her attempts to negotiate a meaning for the offering bearers and the breast-feeding woman within this interpretation were unsuccessful, however,3 so the problem of the significance of the Játiva basin's subject matter deserves further scrutiny.
    Though the images of princely leisure shown here are more varied and animated than those known from caliphal ivories, they seem to fit squarely within the tradition that equates depictions of elegant princely life with authority and legitimacy. The wrestlers and dancers can be considered extensions of these same themes, if we imagine the kind of entertainment described by Baer. But we must treat the subjects as emblematic - not naturalistic - in order to integrate the more unusual scenes thematically.
If we see the offering bearers not as peasants who bring food to a particular feast, as Baer suggests, but as part of the ancient emblematic tradition whereby such bearers represent sovereignty over a conquered land, we understand them to be part of the matrix of meaning surrounding the depiction of power and symbols of authority.
    The offering bearers signal a particular thematic variation that distinguishes the Játiva basin from the luxury arts to which it is related: They refer to the land and its products. This is our clue to the meaning of the nursing mother, a fleshy and palpable nude, who in this public depiction of private pleasures can only be an allegorical image. As one of the figures enclosed by a medallion, in the manner of a clipea on a Roman sarcophagus, she surely represents a personification of the earth. That such an image has hegemonic implications is clear from its first Roman appearance, on the Ara Pacis,4 which reminds us that profuse and literal figural imagery in the arts of al-Andalus is nearly always bound to abstract notions of power by virtue of its connection to the Roman and Sasanian pasts.
    The combination of iconographical concerns treated on the Játiva basin suggests that the issue of authority implied by princely activities is here linked to the notion of the ownership of and dominion over the land. The cycle can be seen as growing ultimately from late Roman iconographical traditions that include images - among them offering bearers - that verify such ownership. In addition we see the strong intervention of more strictly royal themes of domination in combat shared by Sasanian and Parthian as well as Roman traditions.5
    Such a meaning for the Játiva basin is surely reinforced by its function. This wide, low trough must have adorned the garden of a palace or villa: It is difficult to imagine the combination of a large, awkwardly shaped basin with such expensive, richly carved material in any other context. This setting would link the basin's iconography of sovereignty over the land with notions, which have emerged in recent studies by D. Fairchild Ruggles, that demonstrate that visual mastery over a garden and its fountains was evocative of political mastery over the land in al-Andalus.6
    The early eleventh-century date commonly given to the Játiva basin accords well with this revised iconographical profile. In its strong connections with standard caliphal iconography yet lively divergence from traditional style, it can be seen as a work from the Taifa period, perhaps from the palace of a landowner associated with the court in Játiva. In fact, the basin's vast stockpiling of princely symbolism reminds us that many Taifa kingdoms used patronage and the arts to sustain an image of rulership far more ambitious than that which their military might could actually maintain.
1. Baer1970-71, pp.143-44.
2. Ibid., pp. 164, 148.
3. Ibid., p. 154, and "For the time being ... we can only suggest that the nursing woman has perhaps to be interpreted as part of the everyday rural atmosphere so preponderant in the other scenes, further stressing the popular character of the festivities shown in these reliefs" (p. 156).
4. Strong 1937, pp. 121-25.
5. Concerning a late antique "landowner's cycle" of iconography, see Grabar 1968, pp. 51-54; concerning Sasanian connections, see Kiihnel196o, p. 181.
6. Essay in this catalogue, pp. 163-71.
LITERATURE: Gomez-Moreno 1951, pp. 274-76, 278, figs. 328-30; Baer 1970-71, pp. 142-66; Sarthou Carreras 1947ˇ pp. 8-10.

Játiva Basin
Taifa period, 11th century
42 x 170 x 67 cm
Museo del Almudin, Játiva
Source: p292, Al-Andalus : the art of Islamic Spain edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds
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