The size and delicate decoration of this bottle are remarkable; few such large or painterly examples of enameled glass are known. The polychrome phoenix on the neck soars above the central scene of mounted warriors wielding maces, swords, and bows. The warriors might well be participants in a horsemanship exercise, outfitted as combatants from the rival Ilkhanid and Mamluk states.
Enameling and gilding on glass was a difficult technique that required much practice before it was mastered. After the enamels were applied on the finished object, they needed to be fired in order to fix them permanently onto the surface; however, the high temperature needed to fuse the enamels could also melt the object. The glassworkers’ clever solution was to constantly rotate the object at the mouth of the furnace while it was still attached to the pontil—a movement that prevented the vessel from sagging. This is how the celebrated mosque lamps, bottles, vases, basins, and other functional objects in enameled-and-gilded glass were created in Egypt and Syria during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when a full understanding of the physical and chemical properties of glass could be achieved only through experience.
This bottle is perhaps the most important work of enameled-and- gilded glass in the Museum’s collection, a true tour de force because of both its enormous size and its unusually complex painted decoration. It is also memorable because it entered the Museum after a series of fortunate circumstances. Said to have been acquired in Cairo in 1825 by the Austrian vice-consul Champion, it was presented to the Habsburg emperor Francis I. The bottle went on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where it remained until 1938, when it was sold together with other objects in order to acquire an important thirteenth-century Austrian chalice. Joseph Brummer, the dealer in charge of the sale, had a gallery in New York, and the Museum moved swiftly to acquire this, as well as other splendid works, from him.
The decoration of the bottle is not only superior in quality but also unusual for incorporating several features that show a kinship with the Iranian Ilkhanid artistic language, a frequent inspiration for Mamluk artists. The most obvious of these elements is the Chinese-inspired phoenix, known as a simurgh in Iran, that surrounds the neck. Another, the series of individual horseback duels, provides one of the most remarkable painted figural sequences in any media in Mamluk art and probably reflects the popular furusiyya (horsemanship) tournaments. Some of the fourteen individuals engaged in combat are represented as Ilkhanid soldiers, the greatest rivals of the Mamluks in the Islamic world. The three prominent circular medallions are also exceedingly sophisticated: their precise, dense scrolling patterns resemble those found in the best illuminated manuscript pages and inlaid metalwork from the same period.
Stefano Carboni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
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M. Champion, Austrian Vice-Consul, Cairo (until 1825; to Imperial House ofHapsburg); deposited in Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna(1825–1938; to Brummer); [ Brummer Gallery, New York, 1938–41; sold to MMA]
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