Brief Identification Edit
The Inlaid Brass Ewer, signed by ʿAli ibn ʿAbdallah al-ʿAlawi, currently sits at the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. This 35 centimeter high jug can be dated back to the 13th century, during the Ayyubid dynasty, from about 1251-1275. It was produced in Mosul, in northern Iraq, a place that was known for its beautiful metalwork.
The Inlaid Brass Ewer was used along with a basin, also signed by ʿAli ibn ʿAbdallah al-ʿAlawi, and both were most likely owned by a member of the higher class to wash their hands before dining at court. This ewer, along with a group of other inlaid brasses, can be associated with Mosul because of the abundance of artist signatures.
Technical Evaluation Edit
The workshops of Mosul were known to have the finest bronzes, including ewers, basins, candlesticks, and others. These bronzes were inlaid with silver and gold, and were decorated with intricate designs and inscriptions. While the technique of metalworking originated in Persia, the trade routes in Mosul shaped it. The earliest use of metalworking was with copper, but with the addition of zinc, copper became brass. In Islamic areas, brass was used to make large braziers and dishes, but soon became proficient in creating ewers, basins, and other bronzes. These would then be decorated with gold and silver through the technique of inlaying. The process of inlaying a precious metal on top of a less precious one is evident on most of the bronzes that came from Mosul.
A group of craftsman centered in Mosul created the Mosul school, which created an improved way of inlaying metals. This technique would bypass the earlier method of inlaying, especially when it came to silver. Strips of silver and gold were placed on undercut bronze and brass pieces in a way that when finished would show no irregularity. This technique was later brought to other cities, including Damascus.
The technique of Damascene, named after the city of Damascus, involved the metal being inlayed to be softer than the substrate metal; the look was created by hammering the metal into an undercut hard metal. By hammering in strips of gold and silver, the brass ewers had predetermined patterns that were decorated. The Inlaid Brass Ewer's patterns and inscriptions include thrones, riders, and planets with their zodiac signs, and are inlayed with silver and gold. The motifs and metal choices are very common for Mosul metalwork.
Local Historical Context Edit
The Ayyubid dynasty, centered in Egypt and founded by Saladin, ruled during the 12th and 13th centuries. After Saladin named himself Sultan, he was able to create a powerful Muslim state. He made many treaties with the Crusaders and gave Jerusalem back to the Christians. After his death, Saladin's brother Al-Aldin became leader followed by a few more, but the fall of the Ayyubid dynasty soon followed with family quarrels, a decentralized government, and Mamluk and Mongol invasions.
While only ruling for a short span of time, the Ayyubids were able to create a prosperous empire filled with educational institutions. They were also well known for their metalwork, and signatures on the artwork concluded that they came from Mosul; their patronymic indicates that they were, or their family was from Mosul. The craftsmen who created these bronzes most likely fled from the oncoming Mongol armies that devolved the Ayyubid government.
The Inlaid Brass Ewer was signed by ʿAli ibn ʿAbdallah al-ʿAlawi along the inside of the can lid most likely showing his respectable reputation. Other inscriptions in the ewer are well-wishing and natural blessings, which which is typical for ewers from Mosul. The ewer was thought to have been commissioned by a high class member of society because of the complexity and craftsmanship of the piece. There are also iconographic motifs that led to the belief that the ewer belonged to a lawyer.
There are many aspects in brasses that make it a Mosul piece. While hunting is typical for Islamic metalwork, fowling and bird hunting is primarily depicted in metalwork from Mosul. The Inlaid Brass Ewer has illustrations of archers and hunting, and the Blacas Ewer, one of the few metalworks from Mosul signed and dated, includes a hunting scene with a bow and arrow. The idea of hunting is not only seen in metalworking, but can also be seen in narratives as a connection to futuwwa. Roughly translated, futuwwa means "chivalry" and "nobility," and is a characteristic that Muslims strive for. The idea is expressed in historical chronicles such as Ibn al-Athir and others.
World Historical Context Edit
The Inlaid Brass Ewer is not the only one of its kind. There are multiple different ewers, many coming from Mosul. The lavishly decorated brasses accredited to the city of Mosul all include similar aspects in the spout, handle, and shoulder of the main body. They also shared a number of patterns and motifs, which were inlayed with gold and silver. The Mosul school is well known for the inlaying of metals, but it was also very popular in China from about 770 - 221 BCE during the Zhou period. The gold inlayed in popular Chinese animal figures was found with Mercury mixed in, something not found in the gold used in Mosul.
Portability was an important aspect in defining the world between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Carrying small objects was a way for people to easily travel and make connections with other people, for example, the connection between Islam and Christianity. Some of the metalwork (ewers, candlesticks, etc.) from the Ayyubid dynasty depict Christian elements, which can include full narrative scenes. Hunting and astrology on metalwork is a very Ayyubid element, but with the addition of iconography, it becomes more globalized. The Freer Canteen from the Ayyubid dynasty show examples of the Nativity and Entry to Jerusalem.
Inlaying metals is a practice still used today. The evolution of the technique created by the Ayyubid dynasty continues on through time, and without it, an entire lifestyle and community would be less understood.
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