This magnificent large Mamluk ewer has survived in remarkably well-preserved condition. It lacks the handle which would have been tubular, linking the shoulder and the mouth, but enough remains of the housings that we can be completely sure of the form. The overall shape with its inverted baluster body, straight angled tapering spout and raised cusping around the base of the neck are all features that are found on Mosul silver inlaid brass ewers of the previous century, one of the earliest of which is that dated 1226 AD made by Ahmad al-Dhaki al-Mawsili now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv.no. 1956.11). The transfer of the form to Mamluk Egypt is easily explained by the documented movement of craftsmen from Mosul to the Mamluk Empire (Raby, 2012, esp. Table 1.3, p.68). A vessel that itself clearly demonstrates the link is a silver-inlaid ewer made for the Ayyubid Sultan Salah-al-Din Yusuf by Husayn ibn Muhammad Al-Mawsili that dates from 1258 (Louvre, inv.no. AO7428). In comparison to those earlier examples, the present form is a little more attenuated, the boss in the lower neck noticeably more pronounced. However it is the trumpet neck with upper flaring mouth that is different from that of any other ewer of the period. It has some similarities to one of the Mosul models, but is far more pronounced here, and presages the flaring mouth of the much later Mamluk ewer made for Fatima, the wife of Sultan Qaitbay, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv.no.762-1900).
Another feature that derives directly from the Mosul original form is the rosettes that are to be found inside the foot and also inside the mouth, appearing almost as nuts at each end of the body holding it all together. Julian Raby illustrates a selection of the Mosul examples, demonstrating how they became less well worked. The present ewer continues this trend, using a form that is found in a number of other Mamluk examples, notably a very unusual food box in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, whose base has three of these (Ward, 2012, fig.8.1).
The anonymous patron of this ewer certainly wanted to commission a vessel that had maximum visual impact. The silver used, is thin, more so than in many vessels of this very wealthy period, but they are used in great liberality, covering as much of the surface as possible with pieces that are themselves often larger than those normally encountered. The extensive use of gold is another indication of the intention of the owner to dazzle as far as possible. When the inscription band around the neck retained its gold this would have been even more impressive. The techniques used are again not the most labour intensive of all; there are no panels where the silver is retained by raised lips of brass covering and protecting the edges of the silver. Here there are two techniques used for the inlay. The first is an initial carving followed by a notching along the edge, roughening it. Silver would then have been hammered into those notches. Some of the smaller areas do not even have that, with the precious metal probably pounced through to the base metal around the edges, the gold or silver again then hammered into the roughened edges. This second method of inlay only works with thin sheets, and is far more frequently found in Mamluk vessels of the second half of the 15th rather than the 14th century. The desire to cover as much surface as possible with silver and gold means that, in marked contrast to usual practice, on occasions the silver is applied to elements of the design that are already highpoints, such as the arcade immediately below the lower gold inscription band. It is not surprising that this is one of the few places on the lower body where the majority of inlay no longer remains.
THE SILVER PANELS:
The desire visually to impress continues with the chased silver panels that are used for certain elements. At first it seems that those at the bases of the spout and handle might be later additions but a comparison of the work with that of the remains of the lower neck boss and also the remains of the drop-shaped spout terminal shows them to be original. To use silver for all these areas is most unusual, and it is clear that, even if the inlay is not the highest quality, the original working of these silver elements was very elegant. The decoration is very fine and inventive, executed both in engraving and chasing, and the twisted copper and silver rope elements that surround the two shoulder panels are without parallel in Mamluk metalwork. It is interesting however to note that they echo the engraved rope pattern around the mouth, another feature not found on other Mamluk ewers.
Bearing in mind the substantial number of Mamluk vessels that have survived from the mediaeval period, it is remarkable how few of these are ewers, a form that survives in plentiful numbers from other Islamic centres of metalwork production. They must have been relatively rare at the time for the quantity today to be so few. The closest of all in terms of the shape and decoration to our ewer is one made for the Amir Tabtaq, governor of the city of Qus, that was found in excavations in the same city in 1966, now in the Islamic Museum, Cairo (inv.no. 24084). Both ewers are of similar form with very similar distribution of decoration, and a very similar treatment of the prominent silver covered raised annular boss around the neck. The decoration of the spout is almost identical. A second similar example to the Cairo one, but with a differently shaped mouth and lacking any gold in the decoration, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv.no.91.1.600). A third example, also in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, dating from a similar period, has similar decoration, but with fewer, larger bands of decoration (inv.no.15089). A very rubbed similar example lacking all inlay was recently on the London market. A spectacular and little published example in the name of the Rasulid Sultan al-Malik al-Afdal al-'Abbas ibn 'Ali, (r.1363-1377) with comparably arranged bands of decoration to ours is in the Bargello, Florence (inv.no.357 C), while an earlier example whose shape has been somewhat altered but whose decoration is beautifully preserved is in the Museo Civico, Bologna (inv.no.2093).
Amir Tabtaq held the role of Governor of Qus during the third reign of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (1310-1341), giving a firm dating for that ewer, now in Cairo. Stylistically ours is very close indeed to that, and can almost certainly therefore be dated securely to that period. It does however also demonstrate the substantially different aesthetics and technical details that could be found in what we have to assume are different workshops co-existing at the same time. It raises the question of how much the patron dictated the form and decoration of a major commission like this. The very prominent trumpet mouth, the very heavy decoration on the foot and mouth, areas which are normally given minor border decoration, the additional copper and silver rope twist around the prominent silver mounts, and the concentration on visual impact rather than finesse of detail, indicate a very specific taste of the princely patron who ordered this remarkable ewer to be created.