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The Pila

an Ablution Basin, Xativa, Spain, early to mid 11th century

Larger images of The Pila, an Islamic Ablution Basin, Xativa.

Detail of the Musicians, Drinker & Servant and People Carrying a Deer on the Pila
Detail of Horsemen on the Pila
Detail of Men Pulling Beards on the Pila
Detail of Bearers on the Pila
Archaeological Museum, Xativa (Jativa), Spain.

Pica Islàmica de Xàtiva, guardada al Museu de l'Almodí de la mateixa ciutat. Del segle XI, 41,9 cm x 169,9 cm x 67 cm, i de marbre de Buixcarró.
[Islamic Pila of Xativa, kept in the Museum of Almodí in the same city. The eleventh century, 41.9 cm x 169.9 cm x 67 cm, and of marble of Buixcarró.]

pp.92-93 The Art of Medieval Spain AD 500-1200, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
Andalusia, 11th century
Carved marble
16½ x 66⅞ x 26⅜ in. (41.9 x 169.9 x 67 cm)
Museo del Almudín, Játiva (A25)

Unlike the high rectangular marble basins that have been found at various sites in al-Andalus and Morocco (cat. 34.), whose original use has yet to be satisfactorily explained, basins with considerably lower sides most probably functioned as fountains. While the higher basins occur in one form only, the extant Maghribi examples with lower sides exhibit a number of different shapes, and their ornamentation is considerably more varied. In addition to the rectangular variety seen here, square, round, and lobed basins are known as well as basins in the form of a cartouche (see p. 82). Their decoration includes vegetal, geometric, calligraphic, and figural designs. However, the basin from Játiva is the only one known to this author that bears human representations.1
    Not only is this the sole basin decorated with human figures, but its figural style is highly unusual for medieval Spain, as is some of its iconography. In fact, the realism conveyed in several of the vignettes to be seen in the decorative band completely encircling this basin as well as certain of the motifs themselves has closer parallels in Fatimid Egypt than in the Iberian Peninsula under the Umayyads or during the taifa period.
    One of these vignettes depicts three men eating and drinking beneath a fruit tree while being entertained by two musicians at the right and served by an attendant at the left. The reclining drinker leans against a bolster and supports himself on his right elbow; the second figure in repose, also resting against a pillow, eats a fruit from the tree. Although the iconography seen here is not uncommon in medieval Spain, the realistic handling of it is what sets this scene apart from similar depictions on contemporary ivory boxes. Highly informal poses have been substituted for the more usual hieratic representations.
    The scenes of men dancing with large sticks or wrestling, while otherwise unknown in al-Andalus, can be seen on two Fatimid luster-painted dishes made in Cairo during the eleventh century and now in the Islamic Museum, Cairo (see p. 78).2 Another of the realistic vignettes on this basin, that of five men, some of whom lead quadrupeds and others who carry fowl or a basket of fruit or vegetables, can also be found in Fatimid Egypt, particularly on objects of wood and ivory.
    This basin appears to be unique among extant Spanish Umayyad and taifa objects, introducing to the Andalusian repertoire a realistic figural style not seen in the peninsula before. Therefore, more important than explaining the iconography chosen to decorate this basin is the need to determine the impetus behind the newfound Andalusian interest in realism exemplified by some of its vignettes.
    As has been mentioned, the influence of Fatimid and Abbasid art on that of al-Andalus was strong. Perhaps this new interest in realism in eleventh-century Spain also had spread westward from Egypt and Iraq. Not only do extant Fatimid objects attest to this fashion, but so does literature of the period. Maqrizi (d. 1442) relates the following story in his Khitat:

Yazuri (the chief minister of the [Fatimid] Caliph al-Mustansir [1036-1094]) invited Ibn ʿAziz from Iraq and excited his evil passions, for (the wazir) had sent for him to contend with al-Qasir, because al-Qasir demanded extravagant wages and had an exaggerated opinion of his own work. . . Now Yazuri had introduced al-Qasir and Ibn ʿAziz into his assembly. Then Ibn ʿAziz said, "I will paint a figure in such a way that when the spectator sees it, he will think that it is coming out of the wall!" Whereupon al-Qasir said, "But I will paint it in such a way that when the spectator looks at it, he will think that it is going into the wall!" Then (everyone present) cried out: "This is more amazing (than the proposal of Ibn ʿAziz)!" Then Yazuri bade them make what they had promised to do: so they each designed a picture of a dancing-girl, in niches also painted, opposite one another-the one looking as though she were going into the wall, and the other as though she were coming out. Al-Qasir painted a dancing-girl in a white dress in a niche colored black, as though she were going into the painted niche, and Ibn ʿAziz painted a dancing-girl in a red dress in a niche that was colored yellow, as though she were coming out of the niche. And Yazuri expressed his approval of this and bestowed robes of honor on both of them and gave them much gold.3

Marilyn Jenkins, Curator, Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1. Not enough survives of the two fragments illustrated in Gómez-Moreno 1951 (p. 275, fig. 238) and called "trozo de pila" to state unequivocally that they formed parts of basins.
2. Inv. nos. 14516 and 9689.
3. Ettinghausen 1956, pp. 267-68.

See also:
Moorish Casket from Cuenca, c.1049AD
Horsemen on an Umayyad Casket from Cordoba, c.966-968
Leyre (or Pamplona) Casket, Umayyad Spain, 1004-1005AD
Other Spanish and North African Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers
Other 11th Century Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers
Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers