The Wallace Collection

A mid-14th-century Islamic glass mosque lamp from Cairo (XXVB94)
Treasure of the Month - September 2004

A mid-14th-century Islamic glass mosque lamp from Cairo (XXVB94)

In the mid-14th-century this elaborately enamelled and gilt Islamic lamp was commissioned to hang from the ceiling of a Mamluk religious building in Cairo. The Mamluk sultans and their emirs competed to build complexes testifying to their piety and wealth - these might typically include a mosque, mausoleum, school and public fountain. Although known as 'mosque lamps', lamps like this were used more widely to adorn religious buildings. For about 100 years from the late 13th century, they were produced in large quantities in Cairo and Damascus. Production of Islamic enamelled and gilt glass declined in the early 15th century.

The lamps were suspended by three or six chains that dropped down from the ceiling to pass through a glass lamp globe which prevented them from getting tangled, before branching out and being attached to the glass suspension rings around the body of the lamp (see illustration below). They were illuminated by a wick floating in a container of oil and water that was attached to chains hooked onto the vessel’s wide mouth.

Although many lamps were hung together, they would not have provided a great deal of light; however, they had a symbolic function, alluding to Allah's guiding light. They were often inscribed with the first part of the Verse of Light from the Koran (24:35), the Islamic sacred book. Applied here in thuluth script, this translates as, 'Allah is the light of the Heavens and the Earth. The similitude of this light is as a niche wherein is a lamp'.

The shape, colours and the decoration of this lamp are typical for the period. Conforming to the Islamic prohibition against the depiction of living beings in the decoration of public buildings, the decoration includes floral motifs that show Chinese influence.

The medallions on the neck and body contain a red cup on a red, gold (traces remain) and blue ground. A cup was the emblem of cupbearers at the Mamluk court, but as shown here it is specifically the emblem of the Great Emir Shaykhu (d. 1357), one of the most powerful emirs serving sultan Hasan. The lamp does not bear his name, so it is unlikely that it was made for the complex he built in Cairo; perhaps it was commissioned by someone in his service.

These exotic lamps were so highly prized by European collectors in the second half of the 19th century that by 1880 few remained in Cairo. In 1865 the comte de Nieuwerkerke bought this example in Paris, where Philippe-Joseph Brocard was embarking on the production of Islamic-style enamelled and gilt glass mosque lamps for decorative use.