Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Enameled and Gilded Glass from Islamic Lands

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

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.

Stefano Carboni
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qamar Adamjee
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Candlestick, ca. 1340–1365
Probably Egypt
Glass, enameled and gilded; H. 8 3/4 in. (22.2 cm), Max. Diam. 8 1/8 in. (20.6 cm)
Inscribed (in cursive naskh script): "Glory to our lord, the sovereign, the learned, the just, the holy warrior, the defender, the protector of the frontiers, the fortified [by Allah], the triumphant, the victorious"
The Corning Museum of Glass (90.1.1)

This candlestick, probably used in a religious setting, is one of two examples in enameled and gilded glass that are known to have survived. Its form follows an established shape in inlaid metalwork, while the geometric pattern decorating its surface was inspired by illuminated frontispieces and endpieces in Qur'an manuscripts from Mamluk Egypt dating to the second decade of the fourteenth century.

Handled vase, ca. 1310–1330
Egypt or Syria
Glass, H. 11 7/8 in. (30.2 cm), Max. Diam. 6 3/8 in. (16.2 cm)
The Corning Museum of Glass (55.1.36)

The shape of this vase has no known parallels in Mamluk metal or ceramic production, though it could be a variation on that of a mosque lamp, adapted for use as a pouring vessel. Its elaborate decorative scheme incorporates typical elements of Islamic ornamentation—calligraphy as well as vegetal and animal motifs.