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Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images.

Christian figures and scenes were a frequent though certainly not a pervasive theme in early Islamic art. But such Christian imagery is especially notable in the decoration of 13th-century inlaid metalwork produced in Ayyubid Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. Why such images became an important part of the artists' decorative repertoire within this particular temporal and geographical setting, and their use and perception within the contemporary Muslim society are the intriguing questions that Eva Baer sets out to answer in this monograph. Unfortunately, much of the information and ideas contained in this slim volume, which would surely have been better conceived in the form of an article, have been said before.

Baer's first chapter, on the historical, political, and socioeconomic background, is one of the highlights of this book, as it presents an interesting compilation of sources on the interaction between Muslims and Christians (both indigenous and Westem) in the heterogeneous society of Greater Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries. The lifestyle of the Latin Christians, and their evident appetite for luxury goods, is singled out for discussion, as Baer will later on propose that certain of the most elaborate examples of inlaid metalwork with Christian decoration were produced for these consumers.

Chapter two considers a group of eighteen objects - primarily vessels, receptacles and candlesticks, which vary widely in terms of quality and style - that bear Christian images, although precisely what constitutes a Christian scene or figure is not fully explained until the following chapter. Furthermore, the second chapter, which is ostensibly a highly detailed description of the eighteen objects classified and discussed according to their shapes or functions, might have included, for the benefit of the nonspecialist, a brief discussion of Ayyubid metalwork in general. Instead, the objects bearing Christian subject matter are constantly compared to and juxtaposed with other contemporary metalwares in a thoroughly confusing manner. Despite the plethora of detail, there is only occasional reference to the content of the inscriptions carried by these objects. Although the majority of these inscriptions have been published in a number of widely dispersed articles and exhibition catalogues, this study would have been better served if the text of the inscriptions (Arabic and English translations) had been gathered together here, even in an appendix, since their content, in particular the titulature, is used by Baer to interpret the decoration.

Chapter three is concerned with the models and meaning of the Christian imagery, which is divided into two categories: scenes relating to the life of Christ, and friezes of what are termed ecclesiastical figures. Baer, as well as others, point out that the Christian subject matter is often confused or misunderstood by the (Muslim) artist and therefore the Christian imagery can only be fully understood within the context of the Islamic culture that produced these objects. Yet Baer nonetheless examines each of the main themes (within the two categories of Christian subject matter) by seeking models in Christian art from throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin and beyond. With regard to the Nativity scene on the well-known canteen in the Freer Gallery, in Washington, she wonders why the artist failed to include the radiance which, in Christian representations, emanates from the star of Bethlehem to illuminate the manger and child, asking, "was this merely a lack of space, or did the artist have religious scruples?"! Far better questions to have raised would have been: what were the sources for figural imagery in 13th-century Ayyubid metalwork in general, and what were the working methods of the metalworker?

Painting, and especially manuscript illustration seems a likely source. Certainly, the metalworkers followed some of the same practices as the miniature painter, reusing existing compositions and figural types, presumably preserved and transmitted through drawings or design books, which were transformed to suit the exigencies of the new context, as well as to meet spatial and compositional requirements. The inconsistencies and omissions or mistakes evident in the Christian imagery of Ayyubid metalwork were most likely not the result of an on-the-spot reinterpretation by the metalworker of a scene somehow familiar to him from Christian art, as Baer implies, but were probably already built into his repertoire of designs, which may have been excerpted from a number of different intermediary sources. Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the Ayyubid metalworkers were copying and transforming a Christian iconography that held little or no real meaning for them, and presumably their patrons, outside of the fact that it looked Christian.

Baer's fourth and last chapter attempts to place these metal objects within their cultural context. In terms of the production of those objects that belong to the category of Islamic luxury wares, and which are by far the more interesting and problematic examples, Baer suggests two possible sources of patronage: the Muslim ruling elite (two examples are inscribed with the name and titles of the Ayyubid al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din) and the Latin Christian nobility. With regard to the objects produced under Muslim patronage, Baer sees two parallel levels of meaning for the Christian imagery. In the first instance, they represent a visual translation of contemporary poetry written in praise of the ruler, an interpretation previously proposed in a more cogent and concise study by Ranee Katzenstein and Glenn Lowry, although they are not cited by Baer in this instance.(1) On the second level of meaning, according to Baer, the Christian imagery complements, even substitutes for, certain royal epithets inscribed on the objects of Najm al-Din Ayyub. Baer proposes that such objects were given as gifts to the Muslim ruler, perhaps in 1240 or 1243. The premise that scenes from the life of Christ, and other Christian imagery, had been absorbed into the repertoire of Islamic princely imagery in Ayyubid metalwork is difficult to accept, given the fact that the Crusaders were still an active threat throughout the first half of the 13th century. Even if, as Baer notes, such traditional epithets as qami al-kafarah or qatil al-kuffar, suppressor or slayer of the infidel, took on a new meaning for the Muslim rulers confronted by the Crusaders, the use of scenes from the life of Jesus, e.g., the raising of Lazarus or the entry into Jerusalem, simply do not make sense as complementary images of Islamic princely omnipotence.

An alternate, though certainly not as yet documented, solution has been offered by Esin Atil.(2) Namely, objects decorated with Christian imagery, such as those examples inscribed with the name of an Ayyubid ruler, may have been intended as gifts for the Latin Christians as part of the frequent negotiations and diplomatic exchanges that occurred during the last decades of Ayyubid rule. A similar interpretation might be offered for objects such as the Freer canteen, which bear Christian imagery combined with Arabic inscriptions that include only general good wishes and praise, rather than the less plausible proposal by Baer, among others, that such luxury objects, with their misunderstood Christian iconography, were specifically commissioned by the Latin Christian nobility as souvenirs.

The artistic motivation for decorating metalwork with Christian subject matter during the last decades of Ayyubid rule, when the Crusaders were still an active though often a diplomatically negotiable threat, is clearly an intriguing question for which an answer as yet remains to be found, the present laudable efforts of Baer notwithstanding.

(1) Ranee Katzenstein and Glenn Lowry, "Christian Themes in Thirteenth-Century Islamic Metalwork," Muqamas, I (1983):53-68; although their interpretation of the Christian imagery is not entirely convincing, this study represents a far better introduction to the subject of Christian decoration in Ayyubid metalwork than does Baer's work, here under review. (2) Esin Atil, W. T. Chase, and Paul Jett, Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Ari (Washington, 1985), 144-45.
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Author:Komaroff, Linda
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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