Bas-relief with bull
Raqqada, Kairouan, Tunisia
Museum of Islamic Art
Hegira, second half of the 3rd century / AD 9th century
Height 38 cm, length 57 cm, thickness 11 cm
Very probably Raqqada.
A bas-relief of a bull carved in marble. The right-hand and lower parts of the carving are missing. The head of the bull is full-face and the body and the neck are in profile. The head looks, oddly, at a complete right angle to the neck. The features are strongly sculpted, with the nose suggested by folds ending in a cavity. The eyes are round, the iris well-carved and the lower eyelids stand out aggressively from the eyeballs. The forehead is two deep folds under a plaited mane.
Only one horn remains, next to the ear, the other having been broken off. The body of the animal is harmonious but gives no impression of robust strength. From the position of the legs, the bull seems to be rubbing up against a tree composed of a trunk and a few branches. Behind the animal's body two buds and three open vine-leaves emerge. Each element has several lobes and is sculpted in a naturalistic style. The carving is set within a frame decorated with grooved arcs and points similarly to an 'egg and dart' design. The naturalistic manner of the carving has led some historians to attribute a Byzantine origin to the piece and suggest that it was re-used in the Aghlabid era. But, in fact, several similar pieces exist in Muslim art and the frontal muzzle is very frequently found. Moreover, we should not forget that Byzantine and classical influences are characteristic of early Aghlabid art.
This piece decorated one of the walls in the state rooms of the as-Sahn Palace on the Raqqada site, which was excavated between 1961 and 1969. We know that this second Aghlabid capital was built in 263 / 876, which puts a terminus post quem date on the bas-relief. The chronological period covers two centuries, up until the desertion of Raqqada at the time of the Hilalian invasions in 449 / 1057. Not possessing an excavation file with information on the archaeological layer in which the object was found, we are unable to date it more precisely. However, the classical style of the decoration would suggest the second half of the 3rd / 9th century.
After its discovery at the Raqqada excavations in 1960 the bas-relief was conserved at the site storehouse until 1993. It was then transferred to the Museum of Islamic Art at Raqqada and displayed there.
An architectural decoration found in situ, the piece was probably carved at Raqqada, re-using some old marble of Italian origin.
Ifriqiya: Thirteen Centuries of Art and Architecture in Tunisia, pp.174–6.
Mourad Rammah "Bas-relief with bull" in Discover Islamic Art , Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. http://www.museumwnf.org/thematicgallery/thg_galleries/database_item.php?itemId=objects;ISL;tn;Mus01;34;en&id=sculptures
Prepared by: Mourad RammahMourad Rammah
Né en 1953 à Kairouan, docteur en archéologie islamique, Mourad Rammah est le conservateur de la médina de Kairouan. Lauréat du prix Agha Khan d'architecture, il publie divers articles sur l'histoire de l'archéologie médiévale islamique en Tunisie et participe à différentes expositions sur l'architecture islamique. De 1982 à 1994, il est en charge du département de muséographie du Centre des arts et des civilisations islamiques. Mourad Rammah est également directeur du Centre des manuscrits de Kairouan.
Copyedited by: Margot Cortez
Translation by: David Ash
Translation copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: TN 57