IN THE 9TH CENTURY, SEA TRADERS BROUGHT CHINESE porcelain and stoneware made from kaolin clay to Basra, a port city at the head of the Persian Gulf in what is now Iraq. Most local ceramics in those days were unglazed earthenware and Iraq had no kaolin. Basra artists met the Chinese competition by developing an opaque white glaze and decorating their earthenware with coloured inscriptions and designs. Thus began 600 years of technical and artistic development in Islamic ceramics. The exhibition Perpetual Glory: Medieval Islamic Ceramics from the Harvey B. Plotnick Collection illuminates this little-known corner of ceramic history. The show of 105 pieces--mostly bowls with a handful of architectural ceramics and a few cups, ewers and other works--was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago until 28 October 2007.
The ceramics in Perpetual Glory were used in the home. They range in date from the Abbasid 9th and 10th centuries through the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty in Iran (mid-13th --mid-14th centuries) to the Timurid dynasty in central Asia (14th-15th centuries). From production centres in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran and central Asia, the ceramics spread throughout the Islamic world. Political instability and pressure caused the artists to relocate from time to time. Innovation often followed these upheavals.
Some of the best excavation sites for medieval Islamic ceramics were looted or destroyed. As a result, surviving documentation is spotty. Scholars know only one or two of the ceramic artists by name and have no answer to important art historical questions. Despite these limitations, there is still quite a story to tell. Technical breakthroughs multiplied artists' expressive options and they developed decoration from calligraphy and schematic designs to figurative imagery that reflected the life of the time. Inscriptions, which are a key element in Islamic ceramic art, advanced from prayers and good wishes to poems and benedictions that were often connected to the imagery on the bowl Perpetual Glory begins with Bowl with an Inscription, on a 9th century earthenware bowl from Iraq with an opaque white glaze and an asymmetrically placed religious inscription in blue. This inscription is readable, but many others are not because the image of writing was more important to artists than what the writing said. Sometimes they twisted letters all out of shape to fit the round concave contours of the bowls.
Islamic artists invented blue on white decoration that influenced ceramics throughout their own world, and afterwards in late medieval Spain, Renaissance Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Bowl with an Inscription is more than 1000 years old, but it seems up-to-date.
The next advance in technology was lustre painting, a glassware decorating technique that artists adapted for use on ceramics. Iraqi potters applied solutions of copper and silver oxides to a fired white glazed surface. As they fired the object a second time, they slowly reduced the oxygen content of the kiln such that the copper and silver adhered as a lustrous veneer to the surface of the glaze. The artists used two or more colours (that is, polychrome) to decorate early lustreware with small geometric and plant designs that produced a sparkling effect like precious metalwork.
In Eastern Iran and Central Asia during the 9th and 10th centuries, artists created slip painting to compete with Iraqi lustreware. They applied diluted solutions of clay coloured with white, red, brown or black pigments to the ceramic surface and fixed them with a transparent and colourless glaze. Bowl with Inscription is early slip-painted work called Samanid epigraphic pottery. This earthenware bowl is painted with a black slip inscription on a white slip ground that praises human generosity. The bold, rhythmic movement of letter forms on this work represents a high point in Medieval …