This large bottle has a domed profile, a slighdy flared cylindrical neck, and a low tooled foot. The decoration is divided into a series of bands. The band on the upper body includes three large medallions, each containing an eight-petaled green-and-red central star from which a complex scrolling pattern radiates outward to create a floral pattern; the outlines are in red, the background is blue and gold, and there are eight alternating pointed elements in red and white. The spaces between the medallions are filled with vegetal decoration, red-and-white flowers, and blue, green, and yellow dots. The main register depicts a colorful scene with horsemen carrying shields, bows, and other weapons. The scene is framed by narrow bands, filled with a crosshatched motif, that also surround the medallions above in an uninterrupted pattern. Narrow bands at the base and upper midsection of the neck as well as on the underside of the body contain sketchier scrolling motifs outlined in red against a blue background. The figure of a simurgh encircles the neck; this fantastic bird has a blue body, red-and-white wings, and a floating feathery green-and-yellow tail.
In 1941 a fortunate series of events brought this masterpiece of Islamic enameled and gilded glass to the Metropolitan Museum. Said to have been acquired by the Austrian vice-consul Champion in Cairo in 1825 (Schmoranz 1898, p. 31), the bottle is one of the earliest enameled objects, if not the earliest, reported in the nineteenth century–well before French, Venetian, and Austrian artists began to imitate this type of glass (see cat. nos.153–157 in this volume). Champion dutifully presented his prized possession to the Hapsburg emperor, and the bottle went on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 1938 it was sold along with other objects to purchase an important thirteenth-century Austrian chalice from a cloister near Innsbruck; it was subsequently acquired by the Metropolitan.
Apart from its astonishing technological accomplishment, evidenced by its size and variety of colors, the most extraordinary aspect of the bottle is its figural decoration. If it were not known that enameled and gilded glass was produced exclusively in Syria and Egypt, the object might well be attributed to Seljuq Anatolia or Iran or to Ilkhanid Iraq or Iran. Its iconography is clearly related to that of extant manuscripts
produced by those cultures, such as the illustrations from the Varqa va Gulshah, of about 1225–50 (Alexander 1996, pp. 64–67, no. 58), and the so-called Small Shahnamas of the first half of the fourteenth century (Simpson 1979).
Enameled glass of this type was also perhaps influenced, both technologically and artistically, by minai pottery, although that relationship has not been investigated thus far. The small figures on the tazza in the Metropolitan Museum (no. 91.2.2538, cat. no. 120 in this volume), for example, bear a close resemblance to those in scenes depicting courtly pastimes on Persian minai pottery of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, this influence continued after the advent of the Ilkhanids, by which time Mamluk glassmakers had become extremely skilled in applying enamels and gold on glass.
The early Mamluks were fascinated by the imagery that the Ilkhanids, their sworn enemies, brought with them from the east (they also quickly incorporated the artistic traditions that were developing in Iran at almost the same time). The Ilkhanid influence is especially visible in metalwork and in the illumination of Qur'an manuscripts. A typical example here is the phoenix floating in midair, its tail wrapped around the neck of the bottle; deriving from the Chinese fen-huang, this bird became the simurgh of the Ilkhanids and was represented in the architectural decoration of their summer palace at Takht-i Sulaiman in the 1270s.
In the scene fourteen men–each differentiated by costume, weapon, gesture, and attitude–mount their horses, which are made equally distinct by their postures and colors. The result is an extraordinary yet ambiguous composition that could conceivably represent either a series of individual duels or two armies involved in a battle. Most of the horsemen are of the Mongol/Ilkhanid type, but some wear turbans and are supposedly Arabs. In fact, rather than depicting an actual battle between the Mamluks and Ilkhanids, the scene is more likely the representation of a Mamluk tournament, or furusiyya (horsemanship) exercise, in which some of the horsemen wear Mongol costumes to mimic real duels. From the iconographic point of view, the so-called Baptistere de Saint-Louis, a large basin in the Louvre, can be cited as the equivalent in inlaid metalwork: there, some of the horsemen appear to be Ilkhanid, while others are clearly Crusaders (Behrens-Abouseif 1989; Alexander 1996, pp. 68–71, no. 59; Ward 1999). The Freer Canteen is also relevant in this context (see discussion under cat. no.123 in this volume).
A bottle of similar shape and dimensions in the Gazira Museum, Cairo, provides the best parallel for the present object, although its decorative program is less complex and refined, featuring musicians within the large medallions and a main register without a figural scene(Lamm 1929–30, pl. 181:7). A model for both may be a smaller bottle with the same profile, a fluted molded pattern, and a decoration including polo players and the so-called Rasulid five-petaled rosette (see cat. nos.131, 132 in this volume), dating to the third quarter of the thirteenth century and now in Berlin (Porter 1998, fig. 21.6). While it has a different shape, another bottle, excavated in the Caucasus
and now in the Hermitage, depicts a sequence of horsemen closely related to those on the present vessel (Kramarovsky 1998, pl. 22.1).
Stefano Carboni in [Carboni and Whitehouse 2001]
David Alexander, ed. Furusiyya. Vol. 2. Exh. cat. King Abdulaziz Public Library. Riyadh, 1996.
Doris Behrens-Abouseif. "The Bapistere de Saint-Louis: A Reinterpretation." Islamic Art 3 (1989), pp. 3–13.
Mark Kramarovsky. "The Import and Manufacture of Glass in the Territories of the Golden Horde." In Rachel Ward, ed. Gilded and Enamelled Glass from the Middle East. London, 1998, pp. 96–100.
Carl Johan Lamm. Mittel-Alterliche Gläser und Steinschnitt-arbeiten aus dem Nahen Osten. 2 vols. Forschungen zur Islamischen Kunst. 5. Berlin, 1929–30.
Venetia Porter. "Enamelled Glass Made for the Rasulid Sultans of the Yemen." In Rachel Ward, ed. Gilded and Enamelled Glass from the Middle East. London, 1998, pp. 91–95.
Gustav Schmoranz. Altorientalische Glas-Gefässe. Vienna, 1898.
Marianna Shreve Simpson. The Illustration of an Epic: The Earliest "Shahnama" Manuscripts. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York, 1979. [Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1978.]
Rachel Ward. "The 'Baptistere de Saint Louis': A Mamluk Basin Made for Export to Europe." In Islam and the Italian Renaissance, edited by Charles Burnett and Anna Contadini, pp. 113–32. Warburg Institute Colloquia, 5· London, 1999.
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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