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Volume 25, Number 4July/August 1974

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The Potters of Islam

"The brilliance of their work reflects the richness of their civilization"

Written by John Luter
Photographed by Freer Gallery

The Islamic potters of the Middle Ages created a glorious new world of earthware. From the ninth century onward, their once humble craft flourished as an art remarkable for its vitality and variety of styles. First around the seat of the Abbasid caliphate in Iraq and in the northeastern provinces of Khorasan and Transoxiana, then in Egypt, Syria, Iran and centers scattered across the vast Muslim lands, master artisans turned the local clays into objects of spectacular beauty unlike any that had been known before, or that were to be produced in Christian Europe until many centuries later.

Their preoccupation was with techniques of surface decoration. Although impressed by the fine porcelain and stoneware that began to be imported from China in early medieval times, the Islamic potters lacked the hard-firing clays necessary to duplicate their massive hardness and smooth glazes. Resourcefully, they soon adopted a different artistic approach. To the bowls, pitchers and other objects they fashioned and fired, they brought a new wealth of color, and an unequaled range of graceful and intricate decorative motifs.

Before the ninth century ended, Islam's artisans had established a tradition of aesthetic and technical brilliance, which was to endure dynastic upheavals and foreign invasions. When political changes interrupted their work, master potters often moved on with their secrets to new centers of power and patronage, and their art flowered repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages. Styles and techniques changed over the years, and frequently differed from one region to another. But essentially, the Islamic potters followed common paths that set their work apart and made it one of the great creative movements in the potter's art. They served all levels of society, but the finest of their glazed ceramics were designed for people of the middle classes, who delighted in owning objects of beauty. And in the colorful, elaborately decorated wares they created, Islam's medieval artisans left a heritage of cultural treasures.

Some of the finest examples of Islamic pottery that have survived the ages were on display last winter at the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., one of the most distinguished of all American galleries. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum that houses the treasures of United States history, the Freer, now 50 years old, arranged three special exhibitions to celebrate its half-century anniversary. The first two high-lighted the arts of China and Japan. The third, which opened in mid-January and continued through May, was devoted to ceramics from the world of Islam.

The Freer is a unique institution. It was established by Charles Lang Freer, an American businessman who made a fortune in the manufacture of railway cars in Detroit and early in his career became a close personal friend of the celebrated American painter, James McNeill Whistler. Whistler developed a deep interest in ancient Oriental art, and this led Freer in the 1890's to begin a collection of Asian art objects that soon expanded to include many examples of the artistry of the Near East. In 1900, at the age of 44, Freer retired from business to devote full time to his hobby, and a few years later, he arranged that, on his death, his important collection would be given to the nation. He constructed a building to house the gallery that now bears his name, and when he died in 1919 his will provided funds to help maintain the collection and to increase it with a view of encouraging study of Asian civilizations and promoting high ideals of beauty. To assure that the collection would remain highly selective, Freer forbade the gallery to accept gifts of art works. He also specified that it could neither loan items for exhibition elsewhere nor display objects it did not own.

The Freer Gallery since has increased its select collection of art objects from 9,500 items to more than 12,000, of which one third represent the art of the Near East. It has nearly doubled its store of Islamic pottery, and it also contains fine examples of Islamic glassware and manuscripts, as well as an extensive library of books and slides on Near Eastern art.

For its jubilee exhibition, the Freer assembled 101 of the best and most representative Islamic ceramic objects from among some 400 that it owns. The choice was made by the gallery's associate curator of Near Eastern art, Dr. Esin Atil, a petite, attractive lady from Istanbul, who was educated in Turkish schools and in 1969 earned a doctorate in Near Eastern Art History at the University of Michigan. To Dr. Atil, one of the Smithsonian's few woman curators, the selection was a labor of love. One of the foremost experts in America on Islamic art, she believes that outside the Islamic lands themselves the magnificence of Islam's artistic tradition is probably best represented by its ceramics.

The exhibition traces the work of Islamic potters from the ninth century to the 19th. More than 40 of the items on display were fashioned in Iran in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the golden age of Islamic ceramics. Persia then led the Islamic world in the production of fine pottery, and for more than 50 years during the two centuries following the arrival of the Seljuk Turks from Central Asia and before invading Mongols destroyed many of the important kiln sites, its potters were noted for their creative genius.

From earlier centuries, relatively few of Islam's ceramic wares have survived. But the Freer exhibit includes two bowls and a plate produced in Iraq in the ninth century, when pottery making first flourished as an art in the Islamic world. It was then that the importation of fine porcelain and stoneware from China convinced the rulers of Islam that pottery making was an art worth encouraging. As a result, ingenious craftsmen from all over the Islamic areas flocked to the capital of the caliphate at Baghdad. Their earliest works were often clearly experimental. But gathering up the threads of ancient experience, they soon introduced techniques that set the pattern for later development and made Islamic ceramics renowned.

One of the first and great innovations of Islam's early potters was lustre painting. The origins of the lustreware technique are disputed. Some say it derived from Egypt, where it was probably used to decorate glass during the first two centuries of Islam, and influenced the work of local potters in the ninth century. Others contend that the first significant employment of the technique was by the potters who centered around the Abbasid court in Baghdad and created lustreware that was exported to all corners of the Islamic domain.

Wherever it originated, the technique was valued by many generations of Islamic potters. The Abbasid artisans used it to make prosaic earthenware glisten like yellow gold, and also to give lustre to ceramic articles with designs often painted in blue, green or purple. The method involved the use of sulphur compounded with metallic oxides and then mixed with an earthy material such as red or yellow ochre. With this mixture, decoration was painted on the surface of a glazed pottery object already once fired. The vessel was then lightly fired for a second time in a reducing kiln, with little air, much smoke and no clear flame. When the surface residue formed during firing was rubbed away, the metallic elements remained on the surface of the glaze in a glittering film not perceptible to the touch.

In the ninth and 10th centuries also, potters became the first among many Islamic artisans to employ the decorative concept known as arabesque, later used as ornament in architecture, on textiles and in countless other ways. Totally covering the surface of ceramic objects, it combined geometric shapes, floral and vegetal motifs, and even stylistic human and animal figures to create a sense of infinite growth through the flow and interrelation of its parts.

The grace of the Arabic script also inspired the early potters. In various parts of the Islamic world, and especially in the semi-independent regions of Khorasan and Transoxiana during the Samanid rule (819-1005), they often used calligraphy for elegant inscriptions. These not only decorated the pottery, but frequently conveyed messages—usually good wishes, popular sayings or proverbs—that reflected a society in which virtuous behavior was stressed.

Persian potters of the Samanid period, in what came to be known as the Samarkand school, made the important discovery that painted decoration, which was likely to "run" when fluid lead glaze was applied over it, would stay fixed if the coloring agents were mixed with a paste of fine clay. Until the 11th century, when their wares slowly declined to the status of peasant pottery, they produced fine ceramic objects in which the basic red or pink clay was entirely covered by a coat of white, and a red or purplish-black "slip" was used for painting.

The Samarkand school remained largely apart from the main development of pottery making in Islam. But when Egypt in turn broke away from the power of the caliphs, the mainstream of Islamic art passed from Baghdad to Cairo.

Compared to the finely sifted pink or yellowish clays of Baghdad, the Egyptian materials were sandy and coarse, with the result that Egyptian pottery often lacked the refinement of earlier Baghdad wares. But Egypt had long been a melting pot of cultures, and under the art-loving Fatimids, who ruled Egypt and Syria for two centuries (969-1171), Cairo blossomed as a vigorous center of ceramic production. The potters who gathered around the court of the Fatimids continued to create fine lustreware such as that popularized earlier in Baghdad. Other works were notable for decoration carved or incised in the body of the object, and covered with colored glaze that formed dark pools in the hollows.

With the overthrow of the Fatimids, the lead in pottery making moved again, this time to Persia where the Seljuk Turks were in ascendancy. There, groups of potters set up kilns in growing urban centers along the major trade routes, and through their work the 12th century, like the ninth, became a turning point in ceramic history. Syria continued to produce a wealth of molded, carved and painted wares until its most prolific pottery center, Rakka, was sacked by the Mongols in 1259. But it was under the Seljuks in Persia that the ceramic art of Islam achieved its greatest development.

An important technical advance contributed to the brilliance of their artistry. Since the ninth century, Islamic potters had neglected the alkaline glazes known in ancient Egypt in favor of glazes fluxed with lead, which would adhere to any ordinary potter's clay but tended to smudge painting not done in earthy pigments. But the Persian potters of the 12th century sought better methods. Turning back in time, they rediscovered and improved the old alkaline glaze and the artificially composed body material related to it. These newly developed materials fused inseparably together. The body was a whiteness that made it an ideal base for painted, carved or molded decoration. This could be covered with a stained or colorless glaze, and the glaze could be made opaque by adding tin-oxide.

The white composite paste, made largely of powdered quartz and potash, became the standard material used throughout the Near East in later centuries for all fine ceramics. With it, Persian potters of the "golden age" were able to produce white wares that were solid, transclucent and agreeable to handle. Offering new opportunities for decoration, it also led the potters to create ceramic wares in an almost endless range of colors, shapes and decorative styles. Their creativity was at its height when the Mongol invasion paralyzed the cultural life of Persia, and dealt pottery making in all Islam a blow from which it never fully recovered.

At the end of the 13th century, the Mongols adopted the religion of their Persian subjects, and sponsored a revival of the arts. But the new pottery, in styles that soon spread from Persia to other parts of the Islamic world, was more somber and restrained in spirit. There were lingering flashes of brilliance, and between the 14th century and the 19th, the last period covered in the Freer exhibit, Islamic artisans produced many magnificent ceramic objects. But their work as a whole lacked the force and originality, as well as the distinctive character, of the medieval wares.

After the 14th century, the costly processes of overglaze painting in gold lustre or enamel colors were virtually abandoned, in favor of the cheaper method of under-glaze painting, which required only a single firing. The arabesque on pottery tended to become overelaborate or tamely academic. And the decorative inscriptions lost their vitality until, on later pottery, they were rarely used.

Lustre painting was revived on some 17th-century Persian wares. And the Turkish and Persian ceramics of the 16th century—some of which were included in the Freer exhibit—were painted in underglaze fashion in a wide range of colors. The decoration was often admirable. But the artificial materials from which the pottery was fashioned tended to be less sensitively handled than in earlier times, and the variations in technique were fewer. In these later times also, the potters found it difficult to maintain the integrity of an Islamic style. The Chinese at last had begun to cover their wares with painted decoration, influenced by the Islamic styles and often using the cobalt blue ores from the Near East. The Persian shahs and Ottoman sultans in particular were avid collectors of Far Eastern wares. And some of the local potters found it far easier to imitate the mannered Chinese designs than to devise their own.

In their earlier period of glory, however, the Islamic potters were far more creative than their contemporaries. The Baghdad potters could make good tin-glazed ware by the ninth century, but not until the 15th century was a comparable ware produced in Christian Europe where, under the names of majolica, delft or faience, it remained the finest form of pottery for another two centuries. The translucent Persian wares of the 12th century anticipated the soft-paste porcelain of France. The overglaze colors of the minai technique preceded the enamel colors that appeared in China during the 15th century and in Europe during the 18th. And lustre painting, though imitated a little in Renaissance Italy, long remained a special glory of Islam.

Great gaps still exist in the knowledge of Islamic pottery. But knowledge is constantly increasing with the aid of new methods of scientific analysis, excavation reports and scholarly research. And as understanding grows, there is increasing appreciation of the special qualities of the wares created in the Middle Ages. Unlike the artisans who illuminated manuscripts or fashioned articles of gold and silver, the medieval potters sought to appeal to the tastes of the middle classes, and the brilliance of their work reflects the richness of their civilization.

John Luter, former Time correspondent and former Director of the Columbia Journalism School's Advanced International Reporting Program, now free-lances in New York.

This article appeared on pages 14-17 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1974 images.