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Ewer: facing birds; kufic inscription

© 1982 RMN / Peter Willi

Decorative Arts
Early Middle Ages

Barbier Muriel

The treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis included several hardstone vases with elaborate mounts. Among them was this rock crystal ewer, made in a Fatimid workshop with the later addition of a filigree gold lid made in Italy. This ewer demonstrates the artistry of rock crystal carvers in 10th- and 11th-century Cairo and gives some idea of the splendor of the abbey's treasury.

The treasury of the abbey of Saint-Denis

Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151 and adviser to Louis VI and Louis VII, made Saint Denis "special patron of the king and protector of the kingdom." He began rebuilding his abbey, adding superb stained-glass windows and precious objects. His plan to enrich and embellish the building was based on the Neoplatonic notion that sumptuous and precious objects help people to transcend the material and come closer to the immaterial. The objects in the treasury are known thanks to the engravings of Félibien, the writings of Blaise de Montesquiou-Fezensac, and the inventory carried out in 1634. Only four of the decorated vases commissioned by Suger survive, one in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the other three in the Louvre.

A Fatimid ewer

This ewer was carved from a single piece of very pure, very thin crystal. The rim is oblique in profile, flat on the upper side, and with a protruding spout. The neck is decorated with two angular moldings. The pear-shaped body is sculpted in relief. On the upper part is an inscription in Kufic script, dedicating the ewer to its owner. The rest of the body is decorated with a symmetrical ornamentation centered on the Tree of Life, with branches ending in palmettes. On either side are two birds linked by the neck to a lozenge decorated with palmettes. The handle was broken in 1576 and the ewer itself was cracked in the 18th century. The body is now in six pieces carefully stuck together. This ewer is one of a series of similar items, including one in the Pitti Palace in Florence, two in the treasury of Saint Mark's in Venice, one in the cathedral of Fermo, and one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. All are decorated in the same way, and all bear an inscription dedicating the piece to the owner. These ewers were produced by crystal carvers in 10th- and 11th-century Cairo and are among the finest, boldest pieces of Fatimid rock crystal objects.

An Italian lid

The small gold lid covers the mouth and lip of the ewer. It is shaped like an escutcheon. The central part of the lid rises in a crown made of groups of grains of gold soldered together. The surrounding area is made of six parts separated by twisted filigree strands. At the ends, the filigree is similar to that produced by Suger's goldsmiths; on the sides, vermicelli filigree is used. Interspersed are filigree daisies similar to those on the Cross of Velletri (Museo del Duomo, Florence) and on a ring found in the tomb of an abbot in Déols (Musée de Châteauroux). These two comparisons allow us to be fairly certain that the lid was the work of a goldsmith from southern Italy. This may be the ewer that Suger received from Thibaut de Champagne, Count of Blois and Champagne, who had himself received it from Roger II, king of Sicily.


Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991, p. 163-166.

Technical description

  • Ewer: facing birds; kufic inscription

    From the Treasury of the royal abbey of Saint-Denis

  • Rock crystal: Fatimid art, late 10th–early 11th century
    Gold filigree cover: central or southern Italy, 11th century

  • MR 333

  • Decorative Arts

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Additional information about the work

Inscription in Kufic script on the body of the ewer