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A Mamluk candlestick base

By Dr. Ariel Fein
Candlestick base attributed to al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, first half of 14th century, brass with silver inlay, Egypt, 21.1 x 33.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This spectacular brass candlestick bears the name of the sultan (king) al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun. al-Nasir Muhammad was a member of the Mamluk dynasty that ruled over key areas of West Asia and North Africa between 1250 and 1517, including the important sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. He was a prolific patron of the arts, and utilized art and architecture as a tool to assert and maintain his authority. Every available surface of his candlestick is covered in intricate silver ornament depicting lotus flowers, birds, and rosettes, and bold Arabic calligraphy proclaiming his name and titles.
Mamluk candlestick, Egypt or Syria, first half of 14th century, brass, formerly silver and gold inlay 35 x 31.5 cm (Aga Khan Museum)
The candlestick has lost its neck and socket, which would have originally held a large wax candle. Intact examples can give us a sense of the complete object. The candle might have been as richly decorated as its holder, possibly scented with incense or decorated with paper designs, including silver or gold leaf. Together, the candlestick base and candle represent the height of luxury at the Mamluk court.
During al-Nasir Muhammad’s reign in the 14th century, a new language of power emerged that communicated royal and elite identity. This candlestick exemplifies this in its lavish materials, superior craftsmanship, and abundant inscriptions.

al-Nasir Muhammad and Mamluk reform

al-Nasir Muhammad, like many other rulers, used art as a tool to convey and solidify his position as sultan. This was especially important, as the early years of his rule were particularly fragile. He first ascended the throne at the young age of 9; however, because of his age, he ruled in name only, and real authority lay in the hands of his high-ranking amirs (military and court officials), who twice seized the throne for themselves. Although he had a dynastic claim to the throne (as the son of the preceding sultan), it was not until his third reign (1310–41), at the age of 25, that he was finally able to assume complete sovereignty.
At that time, he bolstered his rule through large scale social reforms, and effectively created a new elite that was dependent on and bound to him through marriage and money. Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad became their primary source of wealth and luxury. He also used his patronage of monumental architecture and luxury objects—like the candlestick base—as well as gift giving, to assert and affirm his authority within this new social hierarchy.

Crafting al-Nasir Muhammad's candlestick base

al-Nasir Muhammad commissioned the most accomplished metalworkers from Baghdad, Damascus, Mosul, and Cairo to produce exquisite objects of the highest level. By the 14th century, these artisans—informed by metalworking traditions with roots in 12th-century Iran and Iraq—excelled at transforming brass with sophisticated silver and gold surface ornament.
Drip tray, candlestick base attributed to al-Malik ibn Qalawun, first half of 14th century, Egypt, brass with silver inlay, 21.1 x 33.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The metalworkers who created this luxury object first hammered sheets of brass to form its shape. The surface of the brass was then engraved with designs and inscriptions. On the drip tray, for example, we see a band with a
inscription with the name and titles of the sultan on an
background, intersected by repeating roundels (medallions), with birds. Its rim is ornamented with additional Arabic text punctuated by six-petalled rosettes and a frieze of birds alternately facing inward and outward. A black organic substance was pushed into the recesses to create contrast between the arabesques, the Arabic letters, and the bird motifs. Silver foil was then applied to the surface of select details to further enhance the design. Today, the richness of this pattern is unfortunately partially lost to us, as much of the silver foil is no longer extant. The overall effect would have been magnificent, with nearly the whole surface covered with shimmering, precious metal foil.
Incense burner with musicians and hunters, Egypt or Syria, 1250–1300, brass and inlaid silver, 20 x 12.5 cm (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Communicating power through text and image

The candlestick represents a substantial transformation in the decoration of metalwork, as well as the media, that occurred during the third reign of al-Nasir Muhammad (1310–41). Previously, artisans regularly incorporated into their works images of courtly life, including musicians, dancers, wine drinkers, and enthroned rulers, as well as
imagery, including the zodiac and images of the sun and planets. A thirteenth-century incense burner, which held scented materials such as sandalwood and frankincense, for example, includes roundels with musicians, and hunters. By the 1320s, this figural imagery largely gave way to inscriptions, like the ones we see in the candlestick commissioned by al-Nasir Muhammad, that prominently displayed their owners’ names and titles to communicate their position within the Mamluk social hierarchy.
On al-Nasir Muhammad’s candlestick, inscriptions on the horizontal drip tray, rim, and the central register of the drum express contemporary ideas of kingship in the region—the sultan’s divine right to rule and his dynastic legitimacy as the son of the former sultan. For example, a large
inscription, divided into two sections by pairs of medallions, dominates the drum of the candlestick. The inscription reads:
"Glory to our lord, Sultan al-Malik al-Nasir, the learned, the diligent, the holy warrior, the defender, the one supported, and made victorious by God, the guardian and protector of the state and Islam, Muhammad ibn (son of) Qalawun." [1]
Candlestick base with thuluth inscription and medallions (highlighted in turquoise), attributed to al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, first half of 14th century, Egypt, brass with silver inlay, 21.1 x 33.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The visual impact of the sultan’s name and titles on the candlestick base is exaggerated, as the repeating vertical
of the letters stretch the full height of the band. The two medallions that intersect the text feature a new, dramatic innovation in Mamluk calligraphy—a radial inscription. al-Nasir Muhammad’s titles are written around the perimeter of a golden circle with the shafts of the letters pointing inwards towards his name inscribed at the center. Together, the inscribed central roundel—a solar disc—and the circular inscription—the sun’s rays—were intended to equate the ruler with the sun. This visual comparison between the sultan and the sun would have been all the more compelling on the candlestick base, itself a vehicle of light.
Radial inscription highlighted, candlestick base attributed to al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, first half of 14th century, Egypt, brass with silver inlay, 21.1 x 33.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Such candlesticks were frequently given as a waqf (a pious donation), to a mosque. A similar candlestick inscribed with the name al-Nasir Muhammad was given to the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron. Although the original destination of the candlestick that is the subject of this essay (today in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art), is not known. It is possible that it was also intended to be donated to a mosque, where it likely would have illuminated the
, as is recorded in contemporaneous depictions. Alternatively, the candlestick may have been employed in public rituals, such as wedding ceremonies and other celebrations, where it would have been widely seen by members of the court.
Left: radial inscription with lotus flowers, candlestick base attributed to al-Malik al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun, first half of 14th century, Egypt, brass with silver inlay, 21.1 x 33.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); right: Dish with design of mandarin fish and lotus flower border, Yuan dynasty, China, mid 14th century, Jingdezhen ware, porcelain with cobalt pigment under colorless glaze, China, Jiangxi Province, Jingdezhen, 8 x 45.5 cm (Freer Gallery of Art)
Two motifs found on the basin—the six-petalled rosette and lotus flowers—further reinforced al-Nasir Muhammad’s statement of his authority. By the 1320s, the six-petalled rosettes, found on the candlestick rim, served as a recognizable emblem, or symbol, of the
dynasty. The lotus flowers that adorn the drum's two large medallions, also conveyed royalty.
Map of West and East Asia in the 14th century (underlying map © Google)
Lotus flowers commonly decorated contemporaneous Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Beginning in the 13th century, the invasions of the Mongols across West Asia brought devastation, but also allowed for increased trade and cultural exchange across the region. One branch of the Mongol dynasty, known as the
, centered its power in what is today northwest Iran. The Ilkhanids maintained ties with the ruling Mongol dynasty in China, the Yuan dynasty, allowing for the exchange of motifs, such as the lotus flower. It was prominently incorporated into Ilkhanid art—in manuscripts, ceramics, and textiles—where it connoted attributes of kingship and nobility.
Uljaytu Qur'an with lotus flower motifs, Mosul, 1310–11 (British Library)
Although it is not definitive how the lotus flower and other motifs reached Mamluk Egypt and Syria, the early 14th century saw increased contact between the Mamluk and Ilkhanid courts. In 1320, one of al-Nasir Muhammad’s wives,
, arrived in Cairo (Egypt). She almost certainly arrived with luxury items and gifts that may have introduced Chinese motifs to the Mamluks.
Similarly, in 1326, the Uljaytu Qur'an, a lavish
, commissioned by the Ilkhanid sultan Uljaytu and prominently featuring lotus motifs, made its way to Cairo, where it was highly esteemed by the Mamluks. In 1323, the opening of trade along the Silk Roads as a result of a peace treaty between the Ilkhanids and Mamluks also allowed for greater access to goods manufactured in Yuan China and Ilkhanid Iran. Regardless of how the motif ultimately came to be incorporated in Mamluk art, its appearance on the sultan’s candlestick base and his other commissioned works, like the inscriptions, communicated al-Nasir Muhammad’s claim to sovereignty.

Power dynamics and gifting

This visual and textual language of royal power extended to the entire Mamluk court through gifts given to the amirs by the sultan as well as commissions made by the amirs themselves. Several inlaid brass objects inscribed with the titles of unnamed amirs survive, all including the words “in the service of al-Malik al-Nasir (al-Nasir Muhammad).” These anonymous vessels were mass produced to be gifted by the sultan on the occasion of an amir’s promotion to a higher rank. The recipient would be reminded daily of their connection and service to al-Nasir Muhammad.
Mamluk bowl for anonymous amir expressing al-Nasir Muhammad's power through royal motifs, including six-petalled rosettes and a radial inscription on its base (right), Egypt or Syria, 14th century, brass with silver inlay, 15.10 x 7 cm (British Museum)
The amirs imitated their sovereign in their own patronage, commissioning works of art that used the same visual language. Their names, titles, and emblems, symbols associated with their rank and court office, communicated their position within the court, while radial inscriptions, roundels with the sultan's name and/or titles, lotus flowers, and six-petalled rosettes, indicated their allegiance to the sultan. By using these forms, the amirs inscribed themselves within the Mamluk social hierarchy and proclaimed their loyalty to their sultan.
The metal candlestick base was not merely a functional or ornamental object, but represented the ambitions of al-Nasir Muhammad and visualized the new connections across West and East Asia established under his rule.
[1] Translation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Additional resources
Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Cairo of the Mamluks: A History of the Architecture and its Culture (Cairo, 2007).
Willem Flinterman and Jo Van Steenbergen, “‘Al-Nasir Muhammad and the Formation of the Qalawunid State,” in Pearls on a String: Art in the Age of the Great Islamic Empires, edited by A. Landau (the Walters Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 2015), pp. 87–113.
Howayda al-Harithy, “The Patronage of al-Nasir Muhammad Ibn Qalawun, 1310–1341,” Mamluk Studies Review 4 (2000): pp. 219–44.
Carine Juvin, “Mamluk Inscriptions,” in Ubi sumus? Quo vademus? Mamluk Studies – State of the Art, edited by Stephen Conermann (Bonn University Press, 2013), pp. 11–30. 
Yves Porter, “Lotus flowers and leaves, from China and Iran to the Indian Sultanates,” in Le Coran de Gwalior: polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures (Editions de Boccard, 2016), pp. 171–90.
Rachel Ward, “Incense and Incense Burners in Mamluk and Syria,” Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 1990–1991 (1992): pp. 67–82.
Essay by Dr. Ariel Fein

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