To me, one of the most exquisite objects in the Freer|Sackler is a brass basin inlaid with silver, created during the reign of the last Ayyubid sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub (1205–49). The intricately designed basin must have taken a variety of artisans many hours to complete.
When I look at the basin, I am first drawn to the etching in the silver sheets and the black niello (a mixture of copper, silver, and lead), featuring both Islamic and Christian motifs. The etchings serve as a way to refine and provide further pictorial details. The Al-Salih Ayyub basin demonstrates the etcher’s excellence in drawing human figures and robes. The polo players riding horses in the middle register are brought to life with just a few simple, rapid strokes. This technique helps to transmit the character of the figures or animals, while displaying the etcher’s high competence and self-confidence in his trade.
Another technical feature of this basin that amazes me is the five medallions distributed along the top register, representing scenes from the life of Christ. The abbreviated spaces within which these scenes exist must have forced the craftsmen to rework images from standard iconographic manuscript sources. For instance, the Annunciation demonstrates how the craftsmen needed to simplify the narrative to include only the most essential human figures, Gabriel and Mary, without additional details such as the dove or rays of light typically portrayed in Syriac lectionaries.
If you’re interested in the basin, check out more high-resolution images of it on Open F|S, the complete digitized collections of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Surprisingly, you’ll find a shot of the exterior of the base stamped with a medallion of a European coat of arms. This was added in the eighteenth century by a member of the House of Arenberg, one of the most influential and wealthy noble families of the Habsburg Netherlands. It’s interesting to think about the life of objects beyond the era in which they were made.