Mohammed ibn al-Zain, Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis)

Mohammed ibn al-Zain, Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis), c. 1320-40, brass inlaid with silver and gold, 22.2 x 50.2 cm, Egypt or Syria (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the magnificent new Islamic Art galleries at the Louvre in Paris and we’re looking at one of their treasures. It’s an object that was used to baptize the children of the royal family of France for centuries, but it wasn’t originally a French object.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:21] It actually comes from the area of Egypt and Syria, and it dates to between 1320 and 1340.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] It was created by Mamluk artisans. Now, the Mamluks had been slave warriors. They had asserted their independence and had been able to rule in the countries that are today Egypt and Syria for several hundred years.

[0:41] During that period, they became known as extraordinary craftsmen. They were known especially for their textile work and for their metalwork. This is a premier example.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] Normally, vessels like this would have large bands of calligraphy, but this one doesn’t. This one is filled with figures and animals and decorative patterning.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] The only part that is not completely covered are the bottom few inches of the walls of the inside of the basin. Even the floor of the basin is completely covered. Let’s start there.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] There is a very abstract pattern there of sea animals.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] These very complex interconnected designs, similar to tile work.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] The basin is brass. It’s got areas of silver and gold and black paste. I see eels in silver at the bottom.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] Above that, we see first a continuous band of animals that parade around the inner wall and a wide frieze of men on horseback interspersed by animals as well as medallions, figures that are clearly rulers, as well as coats of arms.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] There are two rulers. They sit frontally. They both hold goblets. The figures in between seem to be hunting but [there are] also scenes of battle. We see limbs, and we see a decapitated head. There’s violence here.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] The largest frieze is on the exterior.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] There we see four figures in roundels, each on horseback, slightly different. Two of them are hunting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] Another one is drawing his bow, and the last seems to be processing, perhaps holding a club.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] There are figures on either side of the roundels, sometimes four, sometimes five, all in procession toward the royal figures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:24] These figures are doing all kinds of interesting things. I’m looking at one, for example, that seems to be holding a leopard by a leash.

[2:29] [laughs]

Dr. Harris: [2:30] Another seems to raise a goblet in one hand, perhaps in celebration, and holding a vessel in the other. The figures are so dense that it actually takes time to be able to untangle the complex, interwoven forms.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] On the very bottom band, there are small roundels that carry fleurs-de-lis. The fleur-de-lis is the symbol of the royal family of France. Interestingly, it was also associated with a Mamluk sultan.

[2:56] Art historians think these may have been reworked when they came to France. There were other alterations that make us think that the person who commissioned this was not the person who it was ultimately delivered to.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] As you mentioned before, generally, we would expect to see Islamic inscriptions. That would’ve been very common. They’re absent here, so there’s some speculation that this may have been made for somebody who was not Muslim. Perhaps it was even made for export.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] The iconography is very complicated, and art historians have not untangled it yet.

Dr. Zucker: [3:25] Look how rich the imagery is just under the rim. I can see a unicorn, an elephant. I can see a leopard, a camel, an antelope.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] All processing, all running, all jumping, there’s such movement and energy, not only in the decorative forms, which move in and out, but also in the figures.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] There is a little bit of Arabic inscription, the signature of the artist. We can see that just under the rim.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] He signed it six times, so maybe he was especially proud of it. His name was ibn al-Zain, and the Louvre has another work by this great Mamluk artist.

[3:59] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mohammed ibn al-Zain, Basin (Baptistère de Saint Louis)," in Smarthistory, September 14, 2018, accessed June 25, 2024,