Qantara Qantara

Baptistère de Saint-Louis

  • Title/name : Baptistère de Saint-Louis
  • Production place : Egypt or Syria
  • Date / period : Circa 1320-1340
  • Materials and techniques : Hammered brass, gold, silver, and niello inlay
  • Dimensions : H : 22,2 cm ; D. 50,4 cm
  • Conservation town : Paris
  • Conservation place : Musée du Louvre, Department of Islamic Art
  • Inventory number : L.P. 16
  • Required notices, acquisition, donation, legacy, deposit : Former treasure of the Sainte-Chapelle of the Château de Vincennes, transferred to the Louvre by decree of Prince-President Louis-Napoléon in 1852


This basin, known at the “Baptistère de Saint-Louis”, was made in Mamluk Syria or Egypt during the first half of the fourteenth century. It has sides that curve in somewhat and a slightly sloping rim. Under the outer rim, the artist has engraved his signature: “The work of Master Muhammad Ibn al-Zain, may it be forgiven him.”[1] Although it is lavish, and abundantly decorated with figurative scenes, it has no dedication. On the other hand, the name of Ibn al-Zain appears six times, which is exceptional.

On the outer surface, the decorative panels, interspersed with roundels, form four scenes arranged in an X-symmetry. Two of them depict Mamluk emirs of the sultan’s inner circle (khāssakiya). Depicted full-length, they wear small turbans held in place by strips of cloth, double-breasted robes in the Tatar style and supple boots that sometimes sport blazons. They hold the instruments of their offices: the jumaqdār, a mace; the tabardār, an axe; the bunduqdār, a bow; the silāhdar, a sword. The master of the wardrobe is bent under the weight of a bundle of fabrics; a silk cloth hangs from his arm. At the head of each group, a young Mamluk prostrates himself as if to pay homage to the horseman in the roundel. In the two panels opposite, there are huntsmen and officers of the chamber. They are perhaps not Mamluks: their features are different; they bear no arms and their helmets sometimes resemble Ilkhanid headgear. Thee falconer, cupbearer and taster can be made out; the latter presents a dish with the inscription: “I am a dish for food.”[2]

Inside the basin, four oblong panels depict two hunting scenes, then two battle scenes, all of them very eventful. Four roundels separate them. Two of them contain a monarch on a throne surrounded by the great secretary with a writing case and the master of arms with a sword; the two others are filled with escutcheons bearing the arms of France. All these scenes stand out against a background of leafy rinceaux. They are edged with friezes of animals passant and courant, or fantastic creatures. The bottom of the container is decorated with a ring of aquatic animals, including a crocodile. On the outer and inner rims, above each scene, is a small lily in a roundel, which makes a total of eight blazons.

This figurative decoration is exceptional. The emirs’ dress reproduces that decreed by Sultan al-Mansūr Qalā’ūn (reigned 1279–90). This descriptive dimension is not found in fourteenth-century Mamluk metal objects, decorated with plant motifs and monumental inscriptions. On the other hand, another vessel by Ibn al-Zain, also adorned with courtly scenes[3], confirms the artist’s penchant for this pictorial style, similar to a copy of Maqāmat by Hariri, illustrated in Egypt in 1334[4]. Certain art historians have even thought that the scenes on the outside of the basin depicted specific events. D. S. Rice thus recognised, in the bearded and helmeted figure turned towards the master of the wardrobe, the powerful Emir Salār, viceroy of Egypt under Sultan Muhammad ibn Qalā’ūn (reigned 1294–99), thanks to the blazons on his gaiters[5]. Others have seen in the officers of the chamber and emirs facing each other a depiction of the Mongol mission sent by Berke to Sultan Baybars[6] in 1264. However, Muslims have no tradition of history painting and any important representation was usually accompanied by an inscription explaining its meaning[7].

The blazons on the basin have also inspired many questions. The fleur-de-lis in a roundel resembles the heraldic lily of the Qalā’ūns. These emblems are superimposed on blazons that are still discernible and are unknown in Islamic lands. Under a lily, a lion rampant similar to that of the Lusignans (the lion of Baybars is a lion passant) can be made out; under another is a key motif. It is as though this luxurious work, yet which has no dedication, had been intended for the Lusignans of Cyprus or another Christian lord, then for the Qalā’ūn family. Other evidence shows that, from the beginning, there was an open option on the intended recipients: on the inside surface, the arms of France, welded on in the nineteenth century, were placed on extant escutcheons, but left blank by the brazier[8]. Similarly, on the Mamluk basin inscribed with the name of Hugues de Lusignan, on which various areas were left in reserve for an inscription in French and the arms of Jerusalem[9].

The piece, perhaps commissioned by Christians, pursued its course outside the Muslim domain. It entered the collections of the kings of France at an as yet undetermined date. While it does not figure in the inventory of Charles V, we know that is served as a “font” for the baptism of Louis XIII, celebrated in 1601, in the chapel of the Château de Vincennes[10]. As for the appellation “Baptistère de Saint-Louis”, which was given to the object in eighteenth century, it is erroneous[11]. The form of the basin suggests that dates from after the thirteenth century, and that it could not have belonged to Louis IX, who died in 1270. Furthermore, a baptistery is not an object, but a building next to a church.

Be that as it may, Ibn al-Zain’s basin is one of the luxury objects produced in Islamic lands, but commissioned or sought out by the monarchs of Europe. And as the Lusignan basin features astrological decoration in keeping with its royal recipient, the Baptistère de Saint-Louis could very well deliver a Neoplatonic message with its images. From the central ring to the outer surface decorated with figures standing firm, a gradual swirling motion around a central point is suggested. This spiral construction is induced by the ring of fish. In the Middle East, from antiquity, this ring, associated with the swastika in the centre, was assimilated to solar energy. During the Muslim era, it was used to represent the “Fountain of Life” guarded by Elias and al-Khidr[12]. This representation, of cosmic importance, was used for a vessel that would serve as a baptismal font in the Christian West. The last time it was put to this use was in 1856, for the baptism of the prince imperial, Napoléon-Eugène, at Notre-Dame de Paris.


[1]‘Amal al-mu’allim Muhammad ibn al-Zain ghufira lahu.”

[2]An makhfiya li hamel al ta’ām.”

[3] It is also in the Louvre, Vasselot bequest, inv. MAO 331. Moreover, a wrought-iron grille enhanced with copper knots, executed between 1340 and 1359 to protect a tomb inside a khanqah-madrasa in Jerusalem, bears the signature “Ibn al-Zain”. Cf. the article by J. W. Allan.

[4] Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, inv. A F. 9.

[5] D. S. Rice, Le Baptistère de Saint-Louis (Paris: Les Editions du Chênes, 1951), 16–17.

[6] Cf. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, “The Baptistère de Saint-Louis: a Reinterpretation”, in Islamic Art, III, 1988–1989 (New York: The Islamic Art Foundation, 1989), 3–15.

[7] This fact is underlined by Rachel Ward. Cf. Rachel Ward, “The Baptistère de Saint Louis – A Mamluk Basin Made for Export to Europe”, in Islam and The Italian Renaissance, C. Burnett and A. Contadini, eds. (London, 1999), 113–32.

[8] Millin, who was the first to reproduce the “Baptistère de Saint Louis” in his Antiquités Nationales in 1791, did not depict any charge in the escutcheons placed on the inner surfaces, inside the roundels. Pointed out by Rachel Ward in the article cited above.

[9] It was Hugues IV de Lusignan (reigned 1324–59). The basin is now in the Louvre, inv. MAO 101, as is a brass tray with silver inlay featuring the arms of the Lusignans of Cyprus: an escutcheon charged with a lion rampant, inv. MAO 1227.

[10] The basin used to belong to the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle of the Château de Vincennes, built during the reign of Charles VI (1380–1422). It is possible that the basin became part of the treasury under his reign.

[11] Louis IX was baptised at the church of Notre-Dame in Poissy in 1214. The baptismal fonts of Poissy in no way resemble the Louvre basin.

[12] The theme of the Fountain of Life guarded by Elias and al-Khidr is Qur’anic: sura 18, “The Cave”. Also treated by Nezāmī in the Eskandar-nāmeh, it was the subject of many Timurid and Safavid miniatures in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Aga Oglu, M. “Ein Prachtspiegel im Topkapu Sarayi Museum”. Pantheon 3 (1930): 457 ff.

Allan, J. W. “Muhammad ibn al-Zain: Craftsman in Cups, Thrones and Window Grilles?”. Levant XXVIII (1996): 199–208.

Arts de l’Islam, des origines à 1700. Exh. cat. Paris, 1971.

Barbet de Jouy, H. Notice des antiquités, objets du moyen âge, de la Renaissance et des temps modernes composant le Musée des Souverains. Paris, 1866.

Behrens-Abouseif, D. “The Baptistère de Saint-Louis: a Reinterpretation”. In Islamic Art, III, 1988–1989. New York: The Islamic Art Foundation, 1989.

Ettinghausen, R. “Review of Le baptistère de Saint Louis, by D. S. Rice”. Ars Orientalis I (1954): 245 B–249 A.

Millin, A. B. Antiquités Nationales. Paris, 1791.

Piganiol de la Force. Description de Paris, de Versailles… et de toutes les autres belles maisons et châteaux des environs de Paris. Paris, 1742.

Rice, D. S. Le Baptistère de Saint-Louis. Paris: Les Editions du Chêne, 1951.

Ward, R. “The Baptistère de Saint Louis – A Mamluk Basin Made for Export to Europe”. In Islam and The Italian Renaissance. C. Burnett and A. Contadini, eds. London, 1999.

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