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Islamic Ceramics

A select catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of ceramics from the Islamic world from the 9th to 18th century, by James Allen (published Oxford, 1991).

Islamic ceramics, by James W. Allan

Publications online: 46 objects

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Bowl with seated figure

  • Literature notes

    Lustre is perhaps the most important contribution of Islamic potters to the development of world ceramics. The lustre itself is a metallic sheen which was developed and used for its glittering effect, imitating precious metal. A pot was glazed and fired by the normal method; the design was then painted onto the cold glaze surface in a mixture of sulphur, silver oxide and copper oxide, plus red or yellow ochre, suspended in vinegar; the pot was fired a second time, on this occasion at a lower temperature and in a reducing kiln – a kiln with an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide, produced by damp fuel or a restricted air supply. The ochre was then gently rubbed away from the surface of the cooled pot, the decorative design remaining fixed to the glaze in the form of a metallic sheen. Such a sheen is imperceptible to the touch and generally speaking permanent, unless the pot is subsequently buried. In this case the salts in the earth may attack the surface of the object and the lustrous effect will disappear, leaving only a yellowish stain.

    The lustre bowl illustrated has a number of interesting features. First of all the background of dots is a derivative of background punching on precious metal, showing the influence of the latter on the lustre tradition. Secondly, under the early Abbasid dynasty, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Iraq was flooded with Turks, imported from Central Asia to provide the mercenaries on which the Calliphs’ security depended. The seated figure on the bowl is nothing to do with Islam. On the contrary he is a Bodhisattva, a Buddhist religious figure, typical of eighth century wall-painting from Central Asia. There such figures often carry a flower in the right hand and a phurbu, a ceremonial dagger, in the left. Here, the flower has become highly stylised and the dagger has lost most of its blade. Likewise the peaked hat is impractical, but probably represents the Central Asia ushnisha. These features show that the artist did not understand the image he was copying. The word ‘amal (made by) in Arabic above the figure’s left shoulder shows that he was a local Arab: his name is probably hidden in the design of the bowl.

    [Bibliographic references:]
    G. Fehérvári, Two early 'Abbasid lustre bowls, Oriental Art Vol. 9 no. 2 (1963) pp. 79-88.
  • Details

    Associated place
    Asia Iraq (place of creation)
    Date
    10th century (AD 901 - 1000)
    Abbasid Period (AD 750 - 1258)
    Material and technique
    earthenware, with painting in lustre over an opaque white glaze
    Dimensions
    6.5 cm (height)
    22.8 cm (diameter)
    Material index
    Technique index
    coveredcoated glazed,
    Object type index
    No. of items
    1
    Credit line
    Presented by Sir Alan Barlow, 1956.
    Accession no.
    EA1956.66
  • Further reading

    Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991), no. 3 on p. 8, illus. p. 9

    Allan, James W., Medieval Middle Eastern Pottery (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1971), pp. 12 & 14, illus. p. 13 pl. 8

    Fehérvári, Géza, Islamic Pottery: A Comprehensive Study Based on the Barlow Collection (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), no. 19 on p. 46, pl. 11 b

    London: Hayward Gallery, 8 April-4 July 1976, The Arts of Islam, Dalu Jones and George Michell, eds (London: Arts Council of Great Britian, 1976), no. 263 on p. 218

Glossary (3)

earthenware, glaze, lustre

  • earthenware

    Ceramic material made of clay which is fired to a temperature of c.1000-1200⁰c. The resulting ceramic is non-vitreous and varies in colour from dark red to yellow.

  • glaze

    Vitreous coating applied to the surface of a ceramic to make it impermeable or for decorative effect.

  • lustre

    Metallic sheen obtained by applying a mixture of metallic oxides onto an already glazed ceramic that is refired at a reduced atmosphere.

Location

    • First floor | Room 31 | Islamic Middle East

Objects are sometimes moved to a different location. Our object location data is usually updated on a monthly basis. Contact the Jameel Study Centre if you are planning to visit the museum to see a particular object on display, or would like to arrange an appointment to see an object in our reserve collections.

 

Publications online

  • Islamic ceramics, by James W. Allan

    Islamic Ceramics

    Lustre is perhaps the most important contribution of Islamic potters to the development of world ceramics. The lustre itself is a metallic sheen which was developed and used for its glittering effect, imitating precious metal. A pot was glazed and fired by the normal method; the design was then painted onto the cold glaze surface in a mixture of sulphur, silver oxide and copper oxide, plus red or yellow ochre, suspended in vinegar; the pot was fired a second time, on this occasion at a lower temperature and in a reducing kiln – a kiln with an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide, produced by damp fuel or a restricted air supply. The ochre was then gently rubbed away from the surface of the cooled pot, the decorative design remaining fixed to the glaze in the form of a metallic sheen. Such a sheen is imperceptible to the touch and generally speaking permanent, unless the pot is subsequently buried. In this case the salts in the earth may attack the surface of the object and the lustrous effect will disappear, leaving only a yellowish stain.

    The lustre bowl illustrated has a number of interesting features. First of all the background of dots is a derivative of background punching on precious metal, showing the influence of the latter on the lustre tradition. Secondly, under the early Abbasid dynasty, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Iraq was flooded with Turks, imported from Central Asia to provide the mercenaries on which the Calliphs’ security depended. The seated figure on the bowl is nothing to do with Islam. On the contrary he is a Bodhisattva, a Buddhist religious figure, typical of eighth century wall-painting from Central Asia. There such figures often carry a flower in the right hand and a phurbu, a ceremonial dagger, in the left. Here, the flower has become highly stylised and the dagger has lost most of its blade. Likewise the peaked hat is impractical, but probably represents the Central Asia ushnisha. These features show that the artist did not understand the image he was copying. The word ‘amal (made by) in Arabic above the figure’s left shoulder shows that he was a local Arab: his name is probably hidden in the design of the bowl.

    [Bibliographic references:]
    G. Fehérvári, Two early 'Abbasid lustre bowls, Oriental Art Vol. 9 no. 2 (1963) pp. 79-88.

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