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The Importance of Ceramics

In the pre-Islamic period, most luxury vessels were made of precious metals, including gold and silver, while ceramic wares were largely used for utilitarian purposes such as storing water and food, transporting goods, and cooking. However, in the Islamic world, luxury ceramics became popular and were appreciated for their aesthetic appeal and affordability. This phenomenon may be due in part to Muslim prohibitions on men using gold vessels. However, it is also likely that the creation of more ornate ceramics was a response to the demands of new buyers, who desired reasonably priced luxury goods. Chinese imitations account for only a segment of the luxury ceramics made in the Near East, however; many techniques and styles, such as mina'i and lusterware, were developed independently, responding to local tastes and influences.

Local potters in the Near East were impressed by the elegance and durability of Chinese stoneware and porcelain ceramics and attempted to re-create their prized qualities. Porcelain required white kaolin clay fired at an extremely high temperature; neither the clay material nor the amount of wood required for sustained firing at high temperatures were available in the Near East. Iraqi potters invented ways to imitate the smooth white surface of Chinese ceramics. Using locally available clay, they covered the earthenware body of vessels with an opaque white coating called slip and decorated it with designs in cobalt blue and other colors in emulation of Chinese porcelain.

Chinese ceramics had an indelible influence on the pottery of the Islamic world, a trend that continued in Iran in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and culminated during the Safavid period (1501–1722), when ceramics were increasingly regarded as desirable luxury goods to present as gifts. For instance, in 1609 the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas gave a gift of 835 Chinese porcelain vessels to the shrine of his dynasty's spiritual founder, Shaikh Safi in Ardabil, Iran. This act reflects the status of Chinese porcelain as prized luxury objects in the Safavid court and demonstrates its role in official gift giving.

During the early seventeenth century, Chinese potters emulated Ottoman and Safavid ceramic designs. The likely patrons of these works were Muslims in powerful positions in the Ming court, as well as Muslim merchants in other parts of China. These patrons favored Islamic designs and Arabic inscriptions on their luxury ceramic wares (fig. 48).

Fig. 48. Brush rest with Arabic inscription, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), early 16th century; China; porcelain painted with cobalt blue under transparent glaze (Jingdezhen ware); L. 8 3/4 in. (22.2 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1918 (18.56.14).

A Muslim patron living in China commissioned this brush rest. The mountain form of the brush rest is distinctly Chinese, while the inscription is in Arabic, reading "pen rest" ("pen" on one side, and "rest" on the other). The surface decoration in the form of scrolling arabesques may also be inspired by Islamic art.


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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.