The Baptistère de Saint Louis

Figure 1: The Baptistère de Saint Louis. © 2009 Musée du Louvre / Hughes Dubois.
Detail of the Baptistère de Saint Louis

Figure 2: Detail of the Baptistère de Saint Louis. The standing men can be identified, from left to right, as the silāḥdār (sword-bearer), the bunduqdār (master archer), the jumaqdār (mace-bearer), and the jamadār, the keeper of the wardrobe (holding a folded piece of fabric). © 2009 Musée du Louvre / Hughes Dubois.

This spectacularly detailed basin is known as the Bapistère de Saint Louis (figure 1).[1] It was made in the Mamluk Sultanate by a metalworker called Muhammad ibn al-Zayn, probably in the early fourteenth century. This type of basin was used for ceremonial hand-washing and often had a matching ewer. Many elements of the basin’s design are quite typical for the Mamluk Sultanate, like the arrangement with running animal friezes, the panels and roundels. Less common is the absence of epigraphic bands identifying the patron and/or recipient, and the strong focus on figurative scenes. People are depicted not only in the well-known motif of the seated ruler[2] and in the roundels with horsemen, but the main decoration consists of groups of men involved in various scenes. Some scholars have consequently suggested, also in light of some other elements, that the Baptistère was made for a European rather than a Mamluk patron. However, most of those elements have antecedents within the Mamluk and/or Islamic tradition—although some questions remain—and the imagery on the basin in particular is best understood in a Mamluk context.

On the inside of the rim, two panels depict mounted men in battle, the other two show hunting scenes. The panels on the outside depict men on foot holding various attributes. These men appear to be members of the khāṣṣakiyya, an elite group serving as the sultan’s bodyguard, as is visible from their attributes, which indicate their respective positions. For instance, the cup-bearer (sāqī) carries a cup, the amīr shikar is holding one of the birds of prey of which he was in charge, and the master archer (bunduqdār) holds a bow.

These men formed the elite khāṣṣakiyya, but had started out in a much more humble position. The Mamluk elite consisted of emancipated military slaves (mamluks). Young men were enslaved and imported to the Sultanate, where they were purchased by amirs or the sultan. They were then converted to Islam, trained as soldiers, and eventually manumitted. After that they could start their careers, and a select few managed to ascend to high-ranking positions, some even becoming sultan.

The level of detail on the basin is remarkable, including in the men’s faces (figure 2). In fact, it appears that Ibn al-Zayn aimed to depict men of different ethnic origins. In the premodern Islamic world, it was a specific group of enslaved people who were considered to be suitable for military slavery: northern, light-skinned men, who were believed to possess exceptional courage and war-skills. In the first century and a half of the Sultanate, when this basin was made, most of these mamluks came from Central Asia: the majority of them were of Turkish descent, but there were also ethnic Mongols among them. There were also men from other areas however, such as Anatolia and the Caucasus. On this basin, we see these members of the Mamluk elite depicted not only in incredible detail, but also explicitly as being of varied ethnic descent, reflecting the historical realities of Mamluk slave trade.

[1] It is located in the Louvre Museum in Paris. In the past it was used as a baptismal font for French royal children—hence the first part of the name. How it came to bear the name of the king Louis IX (r. 1226-70) is less clear; he is not connected to the basin. Nor do we know how the Baptistère wound up in France, although it probably did so before 1440 (Sophie Makariou, Le Baptistère de Saint Louis (Paris: Somogy Éditions d’art, 2012), 8).

[2] He is usually flanked by two men, who in this case are holding a pen-box and a sword: symbols of government.

Contributed by Josephine van den Bent. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kind of physical ethnic stereotypes did the maker(s) of this basin employ?
  2. What kind of message about Mamluk rulership does this basin broadcast?
  3. The idea that northern people were courageous and good fighters was based on ideas about climatic and environmental influences that can be traced back to ancient Greek tradition, at least as far as Hippocrates. In the Islamic period, scholars widely considered the inhabitable part of earth to be divided in seven climes, from south to north, the inhabitants of which had different characteristics. Using secondary literature, can you find out how Islamic scholars believed environmental factors affected people’s qualities and characteristics?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Esin Atıl, Art of the Mamluks. Renaissance of Islam (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1981).
  • Anna Kłosowska, “Muhammad ibn al-Zain’s basin (baptistère de Saint Louis),Literature Compass 16 (2019).
  • Estelle Whelan, ‘Representations of the Khāṣṣakīyah and the Origins of Mamluk Emblems’, in Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World: Papers from a Colloquium in Memory of Richard Ettinghausen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2-4 April 1980, ed. Priscilla P. Soucek (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 219–43.


Elite slaves, Images, Men, Race