"...the exceptional quality and artistic merit of this armor resides above all in the distinction of their refined ornamentation."
The masterful and highly original decoration of the steel plates guarding the torso sets this shirt apart from the various Islamic armors known to survive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is the chief reason for its acquisition in 2016. The shirt's construction, with links of mail over the neck, arms, and hips and rows of plates over the vital organs, was indeed conventional in many parts of the Islamic world at the time, as is demonstrated by comparable examples from Persia, Anatolia, and the Caucasus in the Museum's collection. Whereas the larger number of plates–a total of 87 arranged in nine vertical rows—and their careful tailoring–some taper or have been cut out to facilitate torsions of the trunk and motions of limbs—are telling details, the exceptional quality and artistic merit of this armor resides above all in the distinction of their refined ornamentation.
In contrast to the majority of known Islamic shirts of comparable type, the plates have no engraved ornament; instead they have been exclusively enriched with delicate gold overlay—a technique sometimes called false-damascening, which requires a fine scoring of the metal first to give purchase to layers of applied precious metal foil or leaf. The adornment of the plates with panels and medallions enclosing foliate scrollwork, running vines, hexagrams, and inscriptions in thuluth script, and with rows of hatched lines along the edges is distinctly Mamluk and seldom encountered on objects of equivalent scale, as most related works are limited to luxury edged weapons and helmets.
As is established by the gold-damascened inscriptions on its plates, the shirt was made for the personal use of Sultan Qaitbay, one of the longest reigning Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria, and a great patron of the arts. The arsenal mark engraved on the inside of one of the abdomen plates proves that it was once kept in the arsenal of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul, and had probably been seized as a trophy of war by the Ottomans following their conquest of Egypt in 1517, long after Qaitbay's death. As one of the rarest and distinctive examples of its type, it represents a major addition to the Museum's holdings of Mamluk art, and to the outstanding group of royal armors in the Department of Arms and Armor's collection.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge
Department of Arms and Armor