Image 41

Bowl with cobalt-blue inscriptions

Bowl with cobalt-blue inscriptions
9th century
Iraq, probably Basra
Earthenware; painted in blue on opaque white glaze; Diam. 8 in. (20.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1963 (63.159.4)

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Silk Road, cultural exchange and trade, China and Iraq, calligraphy (kufic script), Abbasid caliphate, ceramics

This bowl, made in Iraq, is an example of the earliest Chinese-inspired vessels produced in the Near East.

In addition to being a functional object, a work like this also conveyed the social and cultural status of its owner. The person who bought or commissioned this bowl could afford luxury ceramics and appreciated them for their aesthetic qualities.

The white ground of this shallow bowl creates a stark contrast with the dark blue designs along the rim and in the center. The central calligraphic design consists of a single word, ghibta (happiness), repeated twice in kufic script.

When white wares from China arrived in the Abbasid domains (present-day Iraq and Syria) in the eighth century, potters were impressed by their translucent white surfaces. Although kaolin clay—the material used to create porcelain—was not available locally, Iraqi potters attempted to reproduce its visual effect and durability by covering the earthenware body of vessels with a layer of opaque white glaze. The white ground provided an ideal surface for decoration in any color, but the combination of blue and white was particularly popular.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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Maryam Ekhtiar: I'm Maryam Ekhtiar. I'm a senior research associate in the Department of Islamic Art and I'm joined by Denise Leidy from the Asian Art Department. In the case there is a ceramic with an opaque white ground with blue designs and kufic inscriptions at the center. And another bowl with green splash designs.

Denise Leidy: One of the things that's always fascinated me about the blue and white bowl with the calligraphy is the degree to which it may or may not have been influenced by Chinese art. What I see looking at this from the east, is the interest in the white body, which comes out of technological innovations in ceramics that you see in China in the sixth to the eighth century, where they really start refining the clay until they get an almost porcelain-like body. So how did the Islamic potter get the white body?

Maryam Ekhtiar: Okay, the Iraqi potters had not developed a technology for porcelain or stone paste at this point, so they used earthenware. They used tin oxide to create this opaque glaze on which they would then paint the decoration.

Denise Leidy: So the ceramic is actually glazed and then it's painted over the glaze with the cobalt blue?

Maryam Ekhtiar: Yes.

Denise Leidy: And the one on the green splash?

Maryam Ekhtiar: Well, I think that it's possible that this has been inspired by Chinese splashware, or sancai?

Denise Leidy: Sancai, yeah. What I would think of right away would be the Tang Dynasty sancai wares, where they took the body of a ceramic piece and they essentially splashed on three colors of the sancai. So it would be green, a blue, and an amber or a brown. So, I see a lot of influence from China in this bowl as well, although you would never, ever mistake it for a Chinese ceramic, which is interesting.

Maryam Ekhtiar: Because of the symmetry of the design. Even though it's spontaneous, it's still got a symmetrical composition.

Denise Leidy: That's probably a good point.

Tile with image of a phoenix

The lesson plan related to Ceramics in China and the Near East features a late thirteenth-century tile with the image of a phoenix.