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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Enameled and Gilded Glass from Islamic Lands

Enameled and gilded glass is the best known and historically most treasured type of Islamic glass. The production of such glass was the specialty of the regions controlled by the Ayyubids and the Mamluks (present-day Egypt and Syria) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In this decorative technique, gold and/or enamels (powdered opaque glass) were applied to a glass surface using an oil-based medium and a brush or a reed pen. Because gilt and individual enamel colors have different specific chemical qualities, different temperatures are required to permanently fix them on glass. Applying colors one at a time and individually fixing them would subject a vessel to reheating several times and entail the risk of deforming its shape; thus, it is likely that Mamluk glassmakers mastered a procedure in which they applied all the colors at once and fixed them during a single firing in the kiln without having them run into one another.

The numerous enameled and gilded objects that have survived intact demonstrate that such vessels were highly prized and probably used for special occasions. The large number of existing fragments, however, suggests that this production was not limited to courtly patronage but was also made for commercial purposes. The painterly surface of these objects and the penchant of Mamluk artists and patrons for inscribing them make this type of Islamic glass most informative, helping scholars establish chronologies and attributions.

Enameled and gilded glass developed in the twelfth century in the Syrian area and flourished during the final decades of Ayyubid power and the first of Mamluk domination in the thirteenth century. As Cairo became the capital of the empire in the fourteenth century, most enameled and gilded glass from that time may be attributed to Egyptian, rather than Syrian, workshops. The late fourteenth century saw a decline in production; by the early fifteenth century, dwindling patronage eventually caused workshops to close. By the late fifteenth century, the production of most enameled glass had shifted to Europe—to Venice, in particular. It is likely that a combination of economic, political, and artistic factors caused the disappearance of enameled glass in the Islamic world.