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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Basin (known as the Baptistère of Saint Louis)

» Mohammed ibn al-Zain (Egyptian or Syrian)

Basin (known as the Baptistère of Saint Louis)

Basin (known as the Baptistère of Saint Louis)
Artist / Origin Mohammed ibn al-Zain (Egyptian or Syrian)
Region: West Asia
Date Mamluk Period, ca. 1320–1340
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material Brass inlaid with silver and gold
Medium: Glass, Jewelry, and Metalwork
Dimensions H: 8 ¾ in. (22.2 cm.), Diam.: 19 ¾ in. (50.2 cm.)
Location Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Credit Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

The Mamluks, the majority of whom were ethnic Turks, were a group of warrior slaves who took control of several Muslim states and established a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 until the Ottoman conquest in 1517.

The political and military dominance of the Mamluks was accompanied by a flourishing artistic culture renowned across the medieval world for its glass, textiles, and metalwork.

Master metal craftsman Mohammed ibn al-Zain created this brass basin during the Bahri Mamluk reign (1250–1382). Inlaid with silver and gold, the basin’s wide central, outer band depicts a finely crafted procession of Mamluk emirs, or officials, among them a mace-bearer (jumaqdâr), ax-bearer (tabardân), and bow-bearer (bunduqdâr). Four horsemen in roundels punctuating the procession of dignitaries may be personifications of different aspects of furusiyya, or “horsemanship.” Friezes of animals and coats-of-arms frame this exterior band and decorate the basin’s interior as well.

The basin is an example of an object produced for one ceremonial context but later appropriated for another. It was probably commissioned by a wealthy Mamluk patron to serve as a banqueting piece or, alternately, as a vessel for ceremonial hand washing. Ultimately, however, it ended up in France, where it was used from at least the seventeenth century in the baptisms of children born to the French royal family. The various coats-of-arms on the basin were later worked over with fleur-de-lis, a motif that might have appealed to both the basin’s original Islamic and later European owners. The flower was a popular Mamluk emblem in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as well as a heraldic device of the French royal family.

Expert Perspective:
Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“One object that you might want to show, because it is not a ceremonial object in its original form—it was most probably ceremonial in a sense that it was a banquet object—which is actually a huge metal bowl that was taken in 1249 from Egypt to France and it became the baptistery of all the French kings. It’s called the Baptistère de Saint Louisbecause it’s named after Louis IX, who was trying to conquer Egypt in 1249 and was defeated by the Mamluks. But this objects ended up in the French possession and went back to become this highly, highly, highly meaningful object, where all the kings of France were baptized until the French Revolution. It is actually a copper huge basin that is carved with images of the sultan on his horse and all the emirs, all the princes around him in their sort of ceremonial dresses. So they give us some sort of an idea of how they might have looked.”

Additional Resources

Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. “The Baptistère de Saint Louis: A Reinterpretation.” Islamic Art III (1988–1989): 3–14.

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Art & Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Musée du Louvre Web site. http://www.louvre.fr.

Ward, Rachel. “The ‘Baptistère de Saint Louis’- A Mamluk Basin Made for Export to Europe.” Islam and the Italian Renaissance, Warburg Institute Colloquia, 5 (1999): 113–132.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2