Metalwork ranks high in the hierarchy of the Islamic arts. Although most of what has survived is made of base alloys, it is clear that these were items of great importance in their own time. Almost no gold or silver vessels exist. This is due to many factors, including religious disapproval and the destruction that comes with political upheavals and economic crises. Works in brass and bronze reveal a picture of metalworkers gifted with enormous ingenuity and technical ability. Many pieces were signed by their makers, suggesting that they were objects of considerable prestige in their own time. The impression that they made was immense, influencing other media such as ceramics. Among the metalworker’s greatest accomplishments were exquisite inlays in gold, silver and copper.
During the early Islamic period, Iran produced some of the finest metalwork the world has ever seen. Continuing a Sasanian tradition, metalworkers newly converted to Islam created vessels of great sophistication. They developed a new aesthetic while persisting with animal motifs and other relics from the pre-Islamic past. Ewers, basins and incense burners were cast in bronze and frequently inlaid with precious metals. Even without these inlays, they are shapes with undeniable presence. Sturdy and yet elegant, they show the ability of craftsmen in the Islamic world to transform basic items of utility into refined works of art.
Metalwork with inlay continued to develop during the 9th and 10th centuries and reached its summit in the centuries after that. Iran remained the leader in the field, using the figural motifs that were characteristic of the eastern end of Islam. Calligraphic inscriptions and scenes of daily life fill the surface of objects from cauldrons to inkwells, creating a tapestry of tones and colours. They are in many ways more spectacular than vessels made from gold and silver. The dazzling inlays of precious metals and copper against a sombre bronze background provided a look unique to Islamic art.
Outside Iran, there were other achievements in the field of metalwork. During the 13th century, a school emerged in Mosul that rivalled the expertise of Iran. The Mongol invasion of Mesopotamia drove these artisans westwards, where the Mamluk rulers of Egypt and Syria became great patrons of their craft. Inscriptions and heraldic badges became the central features, containing useful information about the patrons who commissioned these lavish items. Large numbers of ewers, basins, penboxes and, above all, candlestands were created. As with inlaid metalwork from other parts of the Islamic world, much of the precious-metal content was prised out long ago.
The art of inlaying began to decline in the 14th century, although some fine later work was created in Iran. In Egypt and Syria, the late 19th century was a time for Mamluk revival wares. Different types of metalwork evolved throughout the Islamic world. India produced large quantities of bidriware inlaid vessels and works in copper alloys, often with a gilded finish. In China, copper alloys were supplemented by cloisonné enamels. While Safavid Iran emphasised steel and copper, often with a tin finish, the Ottoman contribution relied heavily on large expanses of gilded copper.