Glassware - Mosque Lamps

Origin and time: Egypt or Syria, Bahriyya Mameluks, about 1360 
Museum of Ethnology, Vienna
Inv. No. VO_17086 and 17087 (Collection: Miramare Castle)

The 34 pendant lamps made of enamelled glass were retrieved together with other objects from the marble sanctuary of the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo and represent the most precious part of the collection. The greenish glass lamps were used as decorating elements rather than for illuminating rooms. They were suspended from the ceiling or the head stones of the arcades by wire chains, which were attached to the lamps through six eyelets on each lamp. The objects are decorated in diverse coloured enamels with elegant cirri, Qur’anic inscriptions and medallions including dedications, reading “glory be to our ruler, the victorious Sultan” and often showing the emblem of the Emir.

The technique of decorating glass by gilding and enamelling was developed in the 12th century and probably used in Egypt and Syria only. Mameluke rulers delighted in donating lamps of that kind to their mosques in Cairo. In order to adapt these lamps to the religious surrounding they were intended for, they were decorated merely with cirri and epigraphs in nakshi, rounded thuluth or square kufi. After the destruction of the Syrian glass workshops by the Mongol ruler Timur (also known as Timerlane, 1336-1405) in the 15th century, the technique of decorating glass by gilding and enamelling was brought from the Middle East to Venice.

As for the inscriptions of the illustrated mosque lamps, they were probably commissioned by the Mameluke Sultan Hassan an-Nasir bin Muhammad for his Madrassa (a theological school) in Cairo, which was built between 1356 and 1363. Before being donated to the Department of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Imperial and Royal Court Museum of Natural History, the lamps were used for decorating one of the staterooms in Miramare Castle near Trieste. Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of Austria, later the one and only Emperor of Mexico, had the castle built between 1854 and 1856, during his time as the Viceroy of the kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. On one of his travels to Mediterranean destinations, he had probably purchased the lamps himself in Cairo.