Large glass lamps of this type were commissioned by sultans and members of their court for mosques, madrasas (Qur'anic schools), tombs, hospices, and other public buildings in fourteenth-century Mamluk Cairo. This example bears the name of its patron, Qawsun (d. 1342), amir of the Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalaun (r. 1293–1341 with brief interruptions), and was probably intended for one of his two architectural commissions in Cairo—a mosque or a tomb-hospice complex.
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Title:Mosque Lamp of Amir Qawsun
Maker:'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Barmaki (Egyptian) ?
Geography:Made in Egypt
Medium:Glass, colorless with brown tinge; blown, blown applied foot, enameled and gilded
Dimensions:H. 14 1/8 in. (35.9 cm) Max. diam. 10 1/16 in. (25.6 cm) Diam. with handles 10 5/16 in. (26.2 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Large and impressive glass lamps such as this one in the shape of footed vases with enameled decoration and suspension rings attached around their body were commissioned by sultans and members of their court for mosques, madrasas (Qur'anic schools), tombs, hospices, and other public buildings in 14th-century Mamluk Cairo.
Dedicated to Qawsun (d. 1342), an emir of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalaun (r. 1293–1341 with brief interruptions), this lamp was probably intended for one of his two architectural commissions in Cairo: the mosque (completed in 1329 and now mostly in ruins) or the tomb-hospice complex completed in 1335, of which only the minaret survives. The lamp's decoration is organized in registers. The neck bears part of the verses from the Qur'an's "Chapter of Light," which aptly uses the metaphor of a glass lamp to describe the divine light of God. The body features formulaic and benedictory inscriptions in bold cursive thuluth script, which recalls the inlaid metalwork with epigraphic decoration popular during the long reign of al-Nasir Muhammad.. This lamp bears the name of the patron, Amir Qawson, states his office as "Cup-bearer" (saqi), and includes the name of the sultan he served. Heraldic symbols indicating rank in the Mamluk hierarchy also appear on objects and architecture from the period of al-Nasir Muhammad, and in this case a blazon with a cup, the symbol of Qawsun's highest office, is repeated six times on the neck and underside of the lamp. An unusual feature of this lamp is the artist's signature inscribed around the foot, which may belong to the glassmaker, the painter, or both. The nisba (patronymic or place of origin) of the craftsman, about little is known, is ambiguously written, and thus has given rise to varied interpretations. A silmilar lamp in Cairo, which is contemporaneous with this one, bears the same signature.
Glassmaking in Mamluk Cairo peaked in the 14th century and a decline in quantity and quality began already by the early 15th century. The main centers of enameled glass production shifted to Europe, especially Venice and Barcelona, by the end of the century, and in the 16th century, "mosque" lamps became popular export items from Venice to the Near East.
Qamar Adamjee and Stefano Carboni in [Carboni 2007]
1. Esin Atil, Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks. Exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1981, nos. 25–32.
2. Stefano Carboni, Glass from Islamic Lands. The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum. New York, 2001, p. 234.
3. Stefano Carboni. "Fifteenth-century enameled glass and gilded glass made for the Mamluks: the end of an era, the beginning of a new one," Orient, 39, 2004, pp. 72–76.
Mosque Lamp Inscribed with Part of Ayat al-Nur (The Light Verse)
The Light Verse was often favored for inscription on mosque furnishings such as this enameled and gilded globular lamp from Egypt. The first line appears in Arabic on the widest register of the object's flared neck and retains traces of its original gilding: "God is the Light of the heavens and the earth, the likeness of His light is as a wick-holder [wherein is a light (the light in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star)]" (24:35). Viewed in tandem, the inscription and the object on which it appears literally illustrate the definition of God as a shining light by virtue of the material used (shimmering gold on glass) as well as the function of the light itself. The metaphor of a mosque lamp set within a niche (a recurring image in Islamic art) was also used by the Egyptian poet Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235) to represent the unity of the prophet Muhammad with God. Speaking through the Prophet he writes:
And from His Light the niche of my essence lit up
Upon me and through me my evening shown as my dawn
And I was made to see my being here and I was He
And I saw that He was I and the light was my splendor.
The lighting of the niche thus becomes a metaphor for the union of light and essence, of God and the Perfect Man, the model for all Sufis; for Ibn al-Farid, the Sufi could only hope to achieve tawhid through the prophet Muhammad.
Calligraphic, vegetal, and figural decorations occupy nine different registers and include scrolling designs. Chinese-inspired peonies, and flying birds—the presence of which is unusual but not unique in the decoration of religious furnishings. The most prominant band appears on the body and includes an inscription in Arabic identifying the patron as Sayf al-Din Qawsun, one of the amirs, or generals, of the Mamluk sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala'un (r. 1293–1341). Three red enameled stemmed cups, enclosed in circular medallions on the same register, represent the heraldic blazon of the cup-bearer, the highest rank held by the patron. The lamp may have been commissioned for Qawsun's mosque or tomb complex in Cairo. Of particular interest is the appearance of a signature in a narrow frieze on the floor of the lamp; Stefano Carboni has suggested that the inscription may refer to the maker of the vessel, possibly 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Barmaki, while adding that an alternative (if less likely) reading of the (patronymic or place of origin) as al-Zamaki (from the Arabic zammaka, lit. "to encrust, to fill [with gold and color]) would imply that the artist was the lamp's gilder instead.
Ladan Akbarnia in [Akbarnia and Leoni 2010]
8. Ali, Ahmed. Al-Quaran: A Contemporary Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 301. First published 1984 by Akrash Publishing, Karachi.
9. Ibn al-Farid, The Mystical Poems, ed. A. J. Arberry. London: Enemy Walker, 1952, pp. 80, 84, and 111–12. Cited in Baldick, Mystical Islam, 82.
10. Carboni, Stefani and David Whitehouse, Glass of the Sultans, exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Corning: Corning Museum of Glass: Athens, 2001, pp. 232–34.
This lamp has an almost globular body with a flared neck and a splayed foot. Six suspension loops are attached to the body. The decoration is divided into nine registers, three on the neck, four on the body, and two on the foot. The narrow bands on the neck depict a background of scrolling leaves, peonies, and flying birds, against which peacocks and parrots turn their necks to look backward; peonies and other vegetal motifs are also depicted on the narrow bands on the body and foot. The largest register on the neck shows an inscription (once gilded) interrupted by three circular medallions, each of which includes a footed red cup set against an orange-yellow background. Three cups identical to this one are depicted inside the large band on the underside of the body, where each is enclosed within a blue lobed cartouche. The main register on the body includes an inscription in blue enamel interrupted by the six rings for suspension. The narrow band on the foot bears a signature, also in blue enamel.
This well-proportioned lamp was made for Sayf al-Din Qawsun, one of the emirs of the sultan Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalaun (r.1293–1341, with brief interruptions). Qawsun is known to have come to Egypt from his native Barka (near Samarqand, present-day Uzbekistan) as a merchant of leather goods in 1320, when he was about eighteen years old. He gained access to the court quickly and soon received the titles Emir of a Hundred, Commander of a Thousand, and Cupbearer; in 1327 he married one of the sultan's daughters. During the struggle for the succession to the throne after his mentor's death in 1341, Qawsun was evidently regarded as too powerful, for he was put in jail and strangled there in 1342. His mosque, now mostly in ruins, was built in 1329. The complex with his khanaqah (only the minaret survives intact) and tomb, the last of the buildings he erected in Cairo, was completed in 1335 in an area south of the Citadel. The present lamp may have been commissioned for either complex.
As expected, the emblem shown here is that of Qawsun's highest office, Cupbearer (saqi), represented by a red cup against an orange-yellow stained background and a plain upper field. Qawsun's name and his affiliation to Sultan Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalaun dominate the inscription around the body of the lamp, while the religious function of the vessel is underscored by the presence of the most commonly, and appropriately, copied Qur'anic phrase around the neck.
The most unusual and significant piece of information is found, however, in the least prominent inscription, located around the foot. Here a signature states that the work–either the vessel itself or the enameled decoration, or perhaps both–was accomplished by a certain 'Ali ibn Muhammad whose nisba (patronymic or place of origin of his family) has thus far been read as Amaki, al-Ramaki, or al-Zamaki . A similar lamp (Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, 3154), which is contemporary to the present one, since it was made for the emir Ulmas in 1330, bears the same signature. There, the nisba was abbreviated and the article partially dropped, so the signature seems to read as an improbable "Amaki." The article was retained in the present inscription and, although initially the name seems to be al-Ramaki or al-Zamaki, the inaccurate cursive script allows for some interpretation. Thus, the most likely reading is al-Barmaki (the Barmakid), a well-known nisba from a family of Iranian origin that rose to power in eighth- and ninth-century 'Abbasid Baghdad and soon spread throughout the Islamic world.
A second reading of the nisba, perhaps more improbable but nevertheless fascinating, might relate it to the verb zammaka, which, as used for manuscript illumination in fourteenth-century Mamluk Egypt, meant "to encrust, to fill [with gold or color]". This meaning would seem to accord as well with the thick application of colored enamels within thin red outlines on a glass surface and would imply that 'Ali ibn Muhtammad was the painter, or the "encruster," of this lamp. Whether glassmaker or glass painter, this artist is the only one known to be named as a participant in the making of Mamluk enameled and gilded glass vessels.
'Ali ibn Muhammad's signature does not appear on two other lamps that bear the name of Qawsun (presumably made for the same building as the present one), which are reported to have been in the Charles Gérome and Edouard de Rothschild collections and may be nineteenth-century copies. In addition, the nineteenth-century French artist Philippe-Joseph Brocard copied the Qawsun inscription on a lamp now in the collection of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.
Aside from the prominent inscriptions, the elaborate decoration of this lamp includes many motifs from the repertoire of the early fourteenth century. Unusual for religious furnishings is the presence of flying birds, peacocks, and parrots amid vegetal scrolls, but these would have been barely discernible once the lantern had been suspended from the ceiling and lit. Perhaps, by the second quarter of the fourteenth century, such figures had lost their original significance and had become merely decorative.
Stefano Carboni in [Carboni and Whitehouse 2001]
1. Ya'qub Artin. "Description de quatre lampes en verre émaillé et armoiriées." Bulletin de l'Institut Egyptien, 5th ser., 1 (1907), pp. 82–85; L. A. Mayer. Saracenic Heraldry: A Survey. Oxford, I933, p. 186.
2. Gaston Wiet. Catalogue général du Musée Arabe du Caire: Lampes et bouteilles en verre émaillé. Cairo, 1929. [Reprinted 1982], pp. 123–24).
3. The Encyclopaedia of Islam 1954–, vol. 1 , pp. 1033–36, s.v. "al-Baramika".
4. David James. Qur'ans of the Mamluks. New York, 1988, pp. 66–67.
5. Wiet 1929 (note 2), p. 159, no. 27; Carl Johan Lamm. Mittel-Alterliche Gläser und Steinschnitt-arbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten. 2 vols. Forschungen zur Islamischen Kunst. 5. Berlin, 1929–30, p. 438, nos. 40, 41.
Large-sized enamelled and gilded mosque lanterns must be listed among the greatest achievements in the history of glass production of all periods. In addition to what was explained in the previous entry (MMA 23.189, cat. no. 69 in this volume), it must be stressed here that these vessels were free-blown (only their foot was produced seperately and then attached) and they truly represented a tour de force both for the artisan responsible for the enameling and for the glassblower. Over 150 of these lanterns survive today, the majority of them in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, although many found their way to Europe and America towards the end of the 19th century when they were still hanging from the ceilings of religious buildings especially in Cairo and Damascus. The present lantern is one of the most important of them because its inscriptions contain the name of the amir for which it was made and also—a very unusual feature on enameled glass—that of the artisan who made it, although it is not clear whether he was the glassblower or (more likely) the calligrapher and enameller of the lantern, or whether the same person was responsible for the vessel from beginning to end. Therefore, we know that "This is one of the objects made for His High Excellency, the Lord, the Royal, the Well-served, Sayf al-Din Qawsun, the Cupbearer of al-Malik al-Nasir". Quawsun was one of sultan al-Nasir ibn Qalawun's (r. 1296–1341 with interruptions) amirs and had a mosque built in 1329: this lamp was almost certainly ordered for that building and is datable to about the same year. Its maker signs himself as "The humble servant 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Ramaki (or al-Zamaki)" and he is already known from at least one other lantern now in the Museum in Cairo.
Stefano Carboni in [Walker et al. 1994]
Inscription: Around neck in Arabic: That which was made for his excellency, the exalted, the lord, the royal, the well-served Sayf al-Din Qawsun, the Cupbearer of al-Malik al-Nasir
Around the body: Qur'an, sura 24 (Surat al-Nur), beginning of verse 35: God is the light of the heavens and the earth, the likeness of his Light is as a wick-holder [wherein is a light (the light in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star)] (Translation by Stefano Carboni, Venice and the Islamic World, 2007, p. 340)
Around foot: The work of the poor slave [of God] Ali ibn Muhammad al-Barmaki[?], may God safeguard him. (Translation by Stefano Carboni, Glass of the Sultans, 2001, pp. 232–33)
Around neck in Arabic: This is one of the objects made for His High Excellency, our Lord, the Royal, the Well-Served, Saif-ad din Qausun, the cup-bearer of al Malik an Nasir (Translation by L.A. Mayer in Saracenic Heraldry, 1933, p. 186)
Charles Mannheim, Paris (by 1898–d. 1910; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit,Paris, 1910, no. 133); J. Pierpont Morgan (American), New York (until d. 1913; his estate 1913–17; gifted to MMA)
Mexico City. Colegio de San Ildefonso. "Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York," September 30, 1994–January 8, 1995, no. 70.
Corning, NY. Corning Museum of Glass. "Glass of the Sultans," May 24–September 3, 2001, no. 116.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Glass of the Sultans," October 2, 2001–January 13, 2002, no. 116.
Athens, Greece. Benaki Museum. "Glass of the Sultans," February 20–May 15, 2002, no. 116.
Paris. Institut du Monde Arabe. "Venise et l'Orient," October 2, 2006–February 18, 2007, no. 152.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797," March 27–July 8, 2007, no. 152.
Venice. Sala dello Scrutinio of the Doge's Palace. "Venezia e L'Islam, 828–1797," July 28, 2007–November 25, 2007, no. 122.
Pesaro. Palazzo Ducale. "Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797," July 28–November 25, 2007.
New York. Brooklyn Museum. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," June 5, 2009–September 6, 2009, no. 2.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Light of the Sufis : an introduction to the mystical arts of Islam," May 16, 2010–August 8, 2010, no. 2.
Seville. Fundación Fondo de Cultura de Sevilla. "Nur," October 26, 2013–February 9, 2014, not in catalogue.
Dallas. Dallas Museum of Art. "Nur," March 30, 2014–June 29, 2014, not in catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Making The Met, 1870–2020," August 29, 2020–January 3, 2021.
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Mohammedan Decorative Arts. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930. pp. 193, 196, ill. fig. 120 (b/w).
Nickel, Helmut. "A Mamluk Axe." Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1972). p. 217, ill. fig. 6 (b/w).
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Daniel S. Walker, Arturo Ponce Guadián, Sussan Babaie, Stefano Carboni, Aimee Froom, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Tomoko Masuya, Annie Christine Daskalakis-Matthews, Abdallah Kahil, and Rochelle Kessler. "Colegio de San Ildefonso, Septiembre de 1994–Enero de 1995." In Arte Islámico del Museo Metropolitano de Arte de Nueva York. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1994. no. 70, pp. 184–85, ill. (color).
Carboni, Stefano, David Whitehouse, Robert H. Brill, and William Gudenrath. Glass of the Sultans. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. no. 116, pp. 232–34, ill. (color).
Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797. New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. no. 152, pp. 254, 340, ill. p. 254 (color).
Carboni, Stefano, ed. Venezia e l'Islam, 828–1797. Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2007. no. 122, pp. 275, 353, ill. p. 275 (color).
Akbarnia, Ladan, and Francesca Leoni. "The Mystical Arts of Islam." In Light of the Sufis. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2010. no. 2, pp. 14–15, ill. (color).
Wypyski, Mark. Metropolitan Museum Studies in Art, Science, and Technology. vol. 1. New York, 2010. pp. 122–23.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 50–51, ill. pl. 6 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam. How to Read Islamic Calligraphy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018. no. 23, pp. 94–95, ill.
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