Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit One: Islam and Religious Art/ Featured Works of Art: Images 1–6/ Image 6

Image 6

Mosque lamp
About 1329–35
Maker: 'Ali ibn Muhammad al-Barmaki
Glass, colorless with brown tinge; blown, blown applied foot, enameled and gilded; H. 14 1/8 in. (35.9 cm), Max. Diam. 10 1/16 in. (25.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.991)

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Egypt, Mamluk dynasty, patronage, amir (commander), mosque, blown glass

Mosque lamps like this one symbolize God's presence. In the Ayat al-Nur (The Light Verse), one of the most quoted passages from the Qur'an, God is compared to light:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
The likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil well-nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light
(God guides to His Light whom He Will.)
(Sura al-Nur, 24:35)

Because the first and last daily prayers are held before dawn and after sunset, lamps are necessary for illumination in mosques and other religious buildings. In earlier periods, lamps such as this were used for both secular and religious purposes, but by the fourteenth century they were made almost exclusively for mosques, mausoleums, and religious schools (madrasas). Often a wealthy official would donate lamps to a mosque or shrine as an expression of charity and piety.

This mosque lamp is made of blown glass shaped into a semi-spherical body with a low foot and wide opening, and enameled and gilded. The shape, intricate enameled decoration, and detailed inscriptions are typical of mosque lamps produced during the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517) in Egypt and Syria. (See image 45.)

The calligraphic decoration is divided into three bands: one on the flare, one on the body, and a third on the underside. The name of the patron who commissioned the lamp is inscribed in the lower portion. When lit, the flickering flame illuminated areas without enamel paint, such as the text in the mid-section. The lamp is also decorated with bands of floral ornament.

The decoration on this lamp indicates the status of its patron. The cup design featured prominently near the mouth is the blazon (similar to a coat of arms) of the sultan's cupbearer (jashanqir), a position in the Mamluk court. During the Mamluk sultanate, high court officials usually had blazons that indicated their roles in the hierarchy and ceremonies of the court. The ceremonial cupbearer who commissioned this lamp is identified by an inscription as Saif al-Din Qawsun; the lamp may have been created for his mosque or mausoleum in Cairo.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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Sheila Canby: Imam Shamsi Ali from the Islamic Cultural Center of New York recites the passage from the Qur'an known as the "Light Verse." It's a verse that often appears as decoration on mosque lamps.