Ceramics are among the Islamic world’s most colourful artistic contributions. At various times and places, Muslim potters created wares of outstanding originality. Influences came from many directions, mainly China, but the results are unique to the cultures that produced them. From the austerity of Nishaphur calligraphic bowls to the richness of Kashan lustrewares, there is an unmistakable vigour.
The absence of kaolin clay in the Islamic world was a source of concern to potters who admired the lightness and translucency of Chinese porcelain. In the end this did nothing to hamper their resourcefulness. By trying to reproduce elements of other ceramic traditions they created new forms, which were in turn copied outside the Islamic world.
Another advance in 9th century Mesopotamia was the development of lustreware, a shimmering metallic effect which went through a number of revivals in other regions. From the decorative viewpoint, the most striking achievement of this formative era was the addition of Arabic calligraphy. Entirely Islamic in spirit, this simple device turned ceramic vessels into elegant declarations of faith.
There is a long aesthetic leap from the monochrome precision of 10th-11th century Nishapur to the textured, turquoise-glazed wares that developed in Iran over the following centuries. Technical innovations allowed for new body types, many of which depended on the composite material known as ‘frit’.
Lustreware continued to reassert itself in the 13th century, with densely decorated calligraphic tiles being a speciality of Kashan. Chinese influence also became more apparent. Instead of being inspired by shapes from the Far East, Muslim potters took a closer look at the motifs. A magnificent hybrid art emerged, still uniquely Islamic with its prominent use of Arabic and Persian calligraphy.
The emphasis was very different in the Ottoman Empire, whose contribution will be remembered mainly for Iznik ceramics. These relied less on calligraphy than bold floral designs. After the early blue-and-white decoration of the 15th century, the next two hundred years saw the arrival of flowers and other motifs in vivid colours, painted with a liberated hand. Tiles were once again an important feature, with buildings throughout the empire decorated in stunning patterns created from tiles that were either repeats or formed part of a larger pattern.
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia