The Nature of Art Looting

By Lena Polak

Looted art has been a seemingly inevitable result of warfare throughout the centuries. Many collections of state-run museums throughout the world have had core art stolen and brought home for display of power.

Looting of art is almost always linked with political motivations. To take a contemporary example, the Islamic State is partially financing its terror warfare through selling looted art.  Political motivation, the key reason behind art looting.

So is also the baptistery of Louis IX of France, displayed at the Louvre in Paris, a clear example of this. Nowadays called “Le Baptistère de saint Louis” or “The Baptistery of Saint Louis”, it is in this very basin that Louis XIII and all his successors have been baptised.

 This is even more startling when we take a look at the signature clearly identifiable: Muhammad ibn al-Zayn. Master metal craftsmen ibn al-Zayn created this basin sometime between 1250-1382 in Syria under the reign of the Mamluks, a group of warrior slaves originally from Turkey who ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250-1517.

How does a chef-d’oeuvre of Islamic Art end up as the baptistery of French kings? And why does it have a Catholic name? Some say Louis IX (nicknamed Saint Louis) brought it home after the sixth crusade. What is noticeable is the presence of Fleur-de-Lis, the stylised lily flower that was often used as a symbol in French Heraldry. The engravings of the Fleur-de-Lys are noticeably younger than the rest of the engravings. It is likely that this was added to render the “heretical” basin a more royal character.

As shocking and wrong we perceive looting and alteration today, we must also be intrigued by the fact that a highly religious country and statesman decided upon an Islamic basin for the usage of the most important event in Catholicism. Is using a “heretical” work of art for a religious event a symbol of appreciation of beauty? We’d like to think that, but cynicism and other examples in history lead me to believe that the confiscation and usage of a work of art of a different religion for other purposes, was rather a display of power and clear lack of respect than anything else. It seems that “Saint” Louis’ intention was primarily to make a political and religious statement along the lines of “I/ Christianity rule(s) supreme over Islam”.

Incidents like these happened on several occasions during history. Let us take the Hagia Sophia, for example. Initially called Sancta Sophia, it served as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral until 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans. Sultan Mehmet II ordered the Cathedral should at once be transformed into a mosque. Even now we can see Byzantine mosaics with Islamic inscriptions above and underneath them. One could cynically argue that people do each other full justice.

Art is rarely independent from motivation; it has and will always be used or abused in order to send a certain message, be it display of power, vanity, or a political statement. Just as the French Kings have decided to baptise themselves in a Muslim basin, Muslims have transformed an Orthodox Church into the first imperial mosque of Istanbul.

To say today art is no longer abused for political or personal statements would be incorrect. Just as Louis IX decided to baptise himself in a Muslim basin, so does a CEO of an international firm let his picture be taken in front of a big and colourful Warhol or Jeff Koons. Could dear Muhammad ibn al-Zayn have ever imagined to see his art abused in such a way, as Koons does today? Maybe though, it wouldn’t have surprised him. Maybe, it would even have been an honour, to think that the French King himself chose his basin out of so many others?