Ceramics such as this bowl are among the first examples to incorporate calligraphy as the main element of decoration. The Iraqi potters of the ninth century attempted to emulate the luminous quality and hard body of Chinese whitewares by using a tin‑opacified white glaze. The Arabic word ghibta (happiness) is repeated twice in cobalt blue at the center.
Chinese stonepaste and porcelain ceramics of the Tang period ( 618–907) were exported in quantity to western Asia in the mid-eighth and ninth centuries. Excavated examples found at various sites throughout Iraq serve as evidence of the popularity of these wares at the Abbasid court. In an attempt to imitate the hard body of Chinese high-fired porcelain, ninth-century Iraqi potters rediscovered the earlier technique of coating earthenware vessels with tin oxide mixed with a clear lead glaze, which created a fine opaque white surface onto which a wide array of designs could be painted. Since there were no tin mines in the region, this metal was imported by sea from Southeast Asia. Iraqi potters often decorated their wares with blue (cobalt), green (copper), and manganese purple. They also sought to replicate the shapes of the Chinese ceramics, the majority of which, like this example, are bowls with low feet, flaring sides, and everted rims.
Elegantly proportioned, the bowl is decorated with a kufic inscription in cobalt blue against an opaque white ground. Like others of its type, it is one of the first examples of pottery in the early Islamic period to incorporate Arabic calligraphy as the main element of decoration. Not entirely legible, the inscription appears to be the Arabic word ghibta (felicity), which is repeated twice at the center. Many of these bowls include calligraphic designs with messages of good fortune or the name of the potter, although some also feature vegetal and green splash designs. The tin-opacified wares of Iraq were also the first to incorporate blue designs on a white surface, a striking combination adapted by Chinese potters of the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing periods (1644–1911) and later used extensively in Europe.
Here the calligraphic composition and overall visual effect take priority over legibility. The striking contrast between the cobalt blue of the calligraphy and the white opaque ground creates a visual impression that resembles blotted ink, while the garlandlike motifs decorating the rim combine with the central inscriptions to establish a balanced composition.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Allan 1991a, p. 6.
2. There is an almost identical bowl with an identical inscription in the Harvey B. Plotnick collection in Chicago. See Chicago 2007, p. 42.
3. I bid. See also Watson 2004, pp. 171 – 80.
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in kufic script:
غبطة / غبطة
Felicity / Felicity
[ Nasli M. Heeramaneck (Indian, 1902–1971), New York, until 1963; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Calligraphy West of China," March 15, 1972–May 7, 1972, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament Part I: Calligraphy," February 26, 1998–June 28, 1998, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.
Koechlin, R., and Gaston Migeon. "Ceramics, Fabrics, Carpets One Hundred Plates in Color." In Oriental Art. Paris, 1928. pl. IV, Illustrates in color a very similar bowl, with single "inscription"; called Rhages, 9th century; collection Koechlin.
Lane, Arthur. "Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia." In Early Islamic Pottery. Faber Monographs on Pottery and Porcelain. London: Faber and Faber, 1947. pl. 9A, Illustrates a similar tin-glazed bowl painted on blue, signed Made by Salih; diam. 8 1/4 in.; called 9th-10th century, Mesopotamian; in Detroit Art Institute.
Grube, Ernst J. "The Art of Islamic Pottery." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 23, no. 6 (February 1965). p. 210, ill. fig. 2 (b/w).
Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn, Suzanne G. Valenstein, and Julia Meech-Pekarik. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections. vol. 12. Tokyo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977. pp. 270, 312, ill. pl. 79 (color), profile in b/w.
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 20, ill. fig. 8 (color).
Allan, James. Islamic Ceramics. Ashmolean–Christie's Handbooks. Oxford, 1991. p. 6.
Watson, Oliver. "Kuweit National Museum - The Al-Sabah Collection." In Ceramics from Islamic Lands. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004. pp. 171–80.
Perpetual Glory: Medieval Islamic Ceramics from the Harvey B. Plotnick Collection. Chicago, 2007. p. 42.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 10, pp. 33-34, ill. p. 34 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 210-211, ill. pl. 41 (color).