The Mamluks developed a system of emblems or blazons to signify the role of courtiers serving under each sultan. This emblem dates to the reign of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbey (r. 1468–96) or of one of his successors, and is likely a fragment from an article of clothing or a piece of furniture. Numerous Venetian Renaissance paintings, including The Reception of the Venetian Ambassadors in Damascus, incorporate strikingly similar Mamluk emblems in their compositions.
The Mamluks (1250–1517) in Egypt and Syria developed a system of emblems or blazons that indicated the office of a particular emir at the court; for example, the diamond-shaped figure of a napkin (buqja) for the Master of the Robes (jamdar), or a sword for the armor-bearer (silahdar).Since appointments at the court, including that of the sultan, were not hereditary, these symbols of office were not equivalent to the coats of arms of European families. In time, especially after the Circassian or Burji Mamluks came to power in 1391, these emblems grew in complexity and several symbols became incorporated in the same blazon, either because the emir had held different offices in the past or there existed a generic "logo"—irrespective of the office held—that linked a newly appointed emir to the sultan he served.
This seems to be the case of the present textile fragment—either from a piece of closing or furnishing—that is divided into three horizontal fields including a napkin on top, a cup with the symbol of the pen-box flanked by two horns or "Trousers of Nobility" in the middle field, and a second cup at the bottom. The color combination of both the background and the single elements probably helped to identify this particular emir, who is unfortunately unknown to us. There is little doubt, however, that he was in the service of the sultan al'-Ashraf Qa'itbey (r. 1468–96), since the few emirs who can be identified with this specific composite blazon were under his patronage.
These late 15th century emblems became familiar to the Venetian "Orientalist" painters, who probably interpreted them as coats of arms of the house of the Mamluks, through oral and written descriptions, colored sketches, objects, and textiles like the present one. The symbol of the cup flanked by two horns seems to have been particularly appealing to these painters. It became part of the architectural landscape in Giovanni Mansueti's anachronistic episodes from the life of St. Mark populated by a crowd in Mamluk costumes. In the famous painting illustrating a contemporary scene, the anonymous Reception of the Venetian Ambassors in Damascus (cat. 29 in this volume)—dated 1511 toward the very end of the Mamluk Dynasty—the emblem depicted on the walls of the palace of the sultan's representative in Syria is the very same as the present textile, including the colors of the background of the three horizontal fields. Little is known about the emblems of the emirs under Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri (r. 1501–16); they may have emulated those of earlier decades, but the close match with blazons related to Sultan Qa'itbey suggests that the Venetian painter–assuming he was indeed depicting an episode from the second decade of the 16th century—was relying on earlier visual documents in creating his Mamluk architecture.
Stefano Carboni in [Carboni 2007]
1. The buqja was a piece of cloth worn by the jamdar in which documents and other things were wrapped up, thus taking the stylized shape of a square or diamond.
2. The latter may have been individualized, making use of different colors.
3. Leo Ary Mayer, Saracenic Heraldry: A Survey, Oxford, 1933, pp. 19–22.
4. See for example Mayer 1933 (note 3), pls. LXII:3 (Sibay ibn Bukht Jukha), LXIII (Qajmas al-Ishaqi), LXVI:3 (from the Khan al--Sabun in Aleppo).
[ Michel E. Abemayor, Frankfurt, until 1972; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks," November 21, 1981–January 10, 1982, no. 124.
Paris. Institut du Monde Arabe. "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797," October 2, 2006–February 18, 2007, no. 69.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797," March 26, 2007–July 8, 2007, no. 69.
Venice. Musei Civici Venezani. "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797," July 28, 2007–November 25, 2007, no. 69.
Venice. Sala dello Scrutinio of the Doge's Palace. "Venezia e L'Islam, 828–1797," July 28, 2007–November 25, 2007, no. 69.
Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam : Art of the Mamluks. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. no. 124, pp. 240–41, ill. p. 241 (color).
Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venezia e l'Islam, 828–1797. Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2007. no. 49, pp. 91, 335-336, ill. p. 91 (color).
Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. no. 69, pp. 74-75, 320, ill. p. 75 (color).