For many centuries, metalwork was a leading art form that influenced decoration in other media. Inlay with gold or silver seems to have become common from the twelfth century, spreading westward from Seljuk Iran. What has been called a “silver famine” beginning about the same time may have prompted craftsmen to adopt inlay as a way to make scarce resources go further. But the popularity of the glittering bronze or brass vessels probably also responded to a pious avoidance of gold and silver, which were eschewed by the Prophet.
This elaborate large tray is an excellent example of Mamluk metalwork.
It extols the sultan al-Malik al-Mansur. The reign name—which means “the king made victorious [by God]”— was used by two different men, both of whom ruled in the middle fourteenth century.
Against a background of dense arabesques, multiple inscriptions praise the sultan.
The shortest, written in large script around the center, reads, “Glory to our master the sultan, the wise, the diligent, the just, the warlike king—may his victory be glorious.” Its long strokes radiate like rays of light. The message is repeated and amplified in other inscriptions; even the small roundels offer “Glory to our master the sultan.”
An increasingly prominent use of inscriptions was a feature of Mamluk art. It reflects a military society’s natural affinity for hierarchy and public display. Compare the lively hunting and battle narratives on an earlier basin, usually dated between 1290 and 1310. Islamic metalware was traded extensively around the Mediterranean, and its scrolling decoration became popular in many parts of Europe. So many inlaid pieces—some signed in Arabic—were found in the region around Venice that scholars initially assumed them to have been made there by Islamic artists. Because non-Christians were denied guild membership, however, it is more likely most of them were produced by Italian craftsmen. (Guild restrictions like this were common in the West but not in Islamic lands.)