Islamic Ceramics: The Timeless Tapestry of Art and Craftsmanship

A curated display of Islamic and European lustre ceramics at the British Museum, showcasing tiles, dishes, and bowls with intricate designs and shimmering finishes.
From the heart of ancient Islamic kingdoms to the studios of Renaissance Italy and Britain: A visual journey through the brilliance of lustre ceramics and their enduring legacy; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

Delving into the corridors of history, we often stumble upon treasures that bear silent testimony to the skills, aesthetics, and ingenuity of bygone eras. The Islamic world, with its rich tapestry of culture, science, and artistry, holds many such gems. Among these, Islamic ceramics with their craftsmanship on glass and ceramics shine uniquely, casting a light on the blend of tradition and innovation. In this exploration, we embark on a journey, tracing the magnificent evolution of enamelling on glass and the radiant lustre painting on Islamic ceramics. Join us as we unfold the tales of shimmering legacies, transcontinental voyages, and the undying spirit of artisans across ages.

Islamic Ceramic ; British Museum; Video by Kianoush for Craftestan

Historical Backdrop: The Sands of Time and Glass

Islamic civilisation has always been at the crossroads of innovation, drawing inspiration from Persia, India, China, and the Greco-Roman world. The tradition of Islamic ceramics, especially the glass-making, can be traced back to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Islamic craftsmen, upon inheriting this legacy, infused their own creativity, introducing new motifs, techniques, and nuances that eventually became emblematic of Islamic ceramics and art.

In the vast tapestry of Islamic ceramics and artistry, glass and ceramics shine brilliantly, each piece narrating tales of intricate craftsmanship. Among the myriad techniques, enamelling on glass and lustre painting on ceramics have always stood out, weaving history and tradition seamlessly.

Take, for instance, the enchanting Samara bowl, a pinnacle of Islamic ceramics. This vessel not only epitomises the beauty of lustre but also the rich legacy of Arab potters. The bowl’s resplendent ruby red hue echoes the first lustrous techniques that surfaced on glass in Egypt and later on pottery in Iraq around the 800s.

Ruby red Samara Bowl with shimmering lustre finish, representing the legacy of Arab pottery.
Bowl in earthenware painted in lustres (gold, ruby) on an opaque white glaze; Iraq, 800s, Abbasid dynasty; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

Its design and craftsmanship are reminiscent of treasures from the caliphal city of Samara. While the art of lustre traveled far and wide—from Middle Eastern heartlands to European shores—the Samara bowl serves as a testament to its origins in Islamic ceramics and the enduring allure of traditional techniques. Such pieces weren’t merely objects of local admiration; they were sought after globally, inspiring and being imitated even in Europe.

The Nishapur Bowl: A Journey Through Time and Technique

One of the treasures that beautifully encapsulates the rich history of Islamic ceramics is the stunning bowl from Nishapur, a relic from the Samanid dynasty in the 10th century. Gazing upon this bowl is akin to stepping into a portal, transporting you back to a time when artisans experimented, adapted, and brought to life wondrous artistry inspired by distant lands.

The Intricate Lustre Technique

Before diving deep into the bowl’s story, it’s crucial to understand the background. Lustre artistry, predominant in Iraqi craftsmanship, involved a meticulous technique. By blending silver and copper oxides with vinegar, the mixture was painted onto glazed ceramics. Especially on earthenware, tin was used to give the glaze a pristine white look. The magic then happened in the reduction kiln. The environment with low oxygen caused these metallic compounds to break down, leaving a fine layer of shimmering metal particles within the glaze. Once cleaned, the results were spellbinding—bright, captivating colours dancing across the ceramic surface.

However, achieving this effect was no simple task. Many bowls painted with the metallic oxide mixture might not have been subjected to reduction firing, leading to different outcomes.

The Nishapur Bowl’s Story

Our bowl in focus, painted in an enticing olive slip, tells such a tale of exploration and emulation. Made of earthenware, this vessel stands out with its designs which intricately imitate the Iraqi lustre wares. The significance of this is profound. It indicates that even in Nishapur, situated in Northeast Iran, the allure of Iraqi lustre wares was undeniable. These designs are believed to be attempts at replicating the revered and imported lustre ceramics from Iraq.

The bowl’s origins trace back to the thriving cultural centre of Nishapur during the Samanid dynasty in the 10th century. A period that marked significant advancements in art, culture, and trade.

10th-century Samanid dynasty earthenware bowl from Nishapur, painted in olive slip, imitating Iraqi lustre wares.
Earthenware bowl painted in olive slip, Iran, Nishapur, 10thC, Samanid dynasty; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush by Craftestan

The Mesmeric Dance of Lustre across Time and Geography

In the annals of Islamic ceramics and artistry, the evolution and migration of techniques stand as a testament to the creativity and innovation of craftsmen.. Among the many techniques that spread their allure, the art of lustre painting on ceramics stands out for its shimmering magic.

The journey of lustre painting is as intricate and enchanting as the patterns it bestows upon pottery. Originating in Iraq, this technique, akin to a river, flowed, nurtured, and enriched the ceramics of the Middle East. With potters acting as its vessels, it soon found new homes, including the ceramic centres of Egypt, Syria, and Iran. By the time it reached Egypt, innovative experiments were conducted with the ceramic body itself. The transition from earthenware to a sophisticated material called stonepaste began, which by the 1100s became the prime medium for crafting lustre wares and other pottery forms.

One of the paramount examples of this evolution is a jar from the late 13th century. A masterpiece crafted from yellow-brown painted ceramic, this pottery item hails, quite possibly, from Syria – a region that embraced and enhanced the art of lustre painting. Decorated with elegant medallions segmented by prunus blossoms, the jar’s artistry echoes the essence of the Islamic era from which it originates. Each stroke, each design, evokes the meticulous hands of a potter well-versed in his craft, weaving a tale of beauty and tradition.

Yellow-brown painted ceramic jar from the late 13th century, adorned with intricate medallions and prunus blossoms, showcasing Islamic artistry.
Jar made of yellow-brown painted ceramic, Syria, 13thC(late); British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan.

The Radiant Reflections of Kashan: A Tile’s Tale in Lustre

As our journey delves deeper into the illustrious world of Islamic ceramics, we are brought face to face with another exquisite representation of the lustre technique: a resplendent tile from the heartlands of Kashan.

Kashan, located in the province of Isfahan in central Iran, is a city steeped in art and history, often evoking images of intricately designed carpets and ceramics. By the 13th century, amidst the urban renaissance of the Middle Islamic period, the city emerged as a hotspot for ceramic innovation, blending art and science in a dance of clay and fire.

The tile in our purview is a rectangular frieze, made from stonepaste – a testament to the migration of ceramic materials that we previously touched upon. Its face is brought to life by split-palmette scrolls, painted in evocative shades of blue and turquoise. These designs, moulded in relief, find themselves set against a luminous background, achieved through the lustre technique, adorned with petite scrolling leaves in reserve. The lustrous leaf pattern, shimmering in the ambient light, doesn’t just offer visual pleasure but also serves as an echo to the vast scrolls of written word: the manuscripts of the era that carried similar designs.

Rectangular stonepaste frieze tile from Kashan, decorated with blue and turquoise split-palmette scrolls against a shimmering lustre background.
Rectangular frieze tile, Iran, Kashan, 13thC; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

It’s intriguing how this tile encapsulates the very essence of our exploration. Just as manuscripts preserve stories, this tile from Kashan preserves the tales of countless artisans – their trials, innovations, and the resulting masterpieces. While the lustre technique, originating from Iraq, went through numerous evolutionary phases, its culmination in pieces like this Kashani tile speaks volumes about the transcontinental voyage of ideas and techniques.

Italian Brilliance: Deruta & Gubbio’s Lustred Legacies

As our journey of lustre takes us from the heartlands of the Middle East to the pristine shores of the Mediterranean, the spirit of Renaissance Italy beckons. The tales of lustrous magic do not end in the world of Islamic ceramics; they take a renewed form, subtly shifting under European skies, blending Middle Eastern artistry with Italian finesse.

Deruta’s Portrait of Radiance

A striking dish hailing from Deruta, crafted between 1500 and 1525, stands as a testament to the blend of craftsmanship and creativity. Central to the dish is a mesmerising female portrait, intertwined with the singular letter “N”, perhaps an ode to an enigmatic muse or a subtle nod to a patron. The portrait, rendered in rich blue, is surrounded by ornate patterning, featuring panels of scale pattern and stylised foliage. The brownish lustre adds an element of intrigue to the piece, an artistic choice rooted in its Middle Eastern predecessors. This dish not only speaks of Deruta’s expertise in ceramic craftsmanship but also of the wider aesthetic trends of Renaissance Italy. The influence of Spanish lustreware on Italian Maiolica becomes apparent in such pieces, where tradition and innovation entwine in a dance of beauty.

Renaissance dish from Deruta, displaying a blue-painted female portrait with the letter "N", encircled by intricate patterns of scale and stylized foliage, all accentuated with brownish lustre.Islamic Influence on Lustre Ceramics
Dish or plate with central emplacement for an ewer, Deruta, Italy, 1500-1525; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

Gubbio’s Gilded Cherub

Moving slightly north to Gubbio, between 1525 and 1535, we find another exemplar of Italian lustreware: a broad-rimmed bowl, shimmering with golden lustre. At its heart lies a playful cherub, complete with gossamer wings, adorned with a red necklace, merrily riding a stick hobby horse. This cherub, often referred to as a putto in Renaissance art, is a symbol of love and playful abandon. Surrounding the cherub, the rim displays intricate arabesques scratched out of a rich blue field, further accentuated by the lustre.

The bowl’s reverse, however, holds its own tale. Red lustre scrolls, combined with a possible initial “M”, perhaps point to a maker, a muse, or even a mystery. Created in the workshop of the renowned Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, this piece is a shining beacon of Gubbio’s lustre artistry.

It’s evident that by the 16th century, Italy had not only embraced the technique of lustre but also made it its own. The secrecy surrounding the technique, as described by Piccolpasso, adds a layer of intrigue to these pieces. Deruta and Gubbio, with their illustrious ceramics, stand tall in the annals of European artistry, drawing on Middle Eastern legacy, and creating a bridge of beauty and craft across cultures and eras.

Golden-lustred Renaissance bowl from Gubbio, showcasing a winged cherub riding a hobby horse, with intricate blue and red patterns on the rim and reverse. Islamic Influence on Lustre Ceramics
Broad-rimmed bowl or plate with well, Gubbio, Italy, 1525-1535; British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

The Lustre of Legacy: Islamic Influences on European Ceramics

The delicate sheen and shimmer of lustreware have traveled across continents, bearing witness to the confluence of cultures and the intermingling of artistic traditions. The heart of this story lies in the world of Islamic ceramics, which planted the seeds that eventually blossomed in the artistic landscapes of Italy and Britain.

The Islamic Genesis of Lustre

The art of lustreware, a technique of metallic glazing that gives ceramics their signature iridescent finish, first found its footing in the Islamic world. As early as the 9th century, potters from the Middle East were perfecting this craft, drawing inspiration from the interplay of light on water, mirroring the aesthetic principles of their surroundings. Their creations weren’t just functional items, but works of art, symbolizing the synthesis of science and aesthetics, reflecting the cosmos itself.

The Andalusian Gateway

As Islam expanded its horizons westward, the art of lustre followed. Spain, with its vibrant confluence of the Moors and native Iberians, became a significant hub. The ornate tiles of the Alhambra and the intricate designs of Cordoba bear witness to this golden age. It was from these very shores of Spain that lustre began its journey into the heart of Europe.

The Italian Embrace

By the time the 1400s rolled in, Italy, with its flourishing Renaissance spirit, became enamored by the Spanish imports shimmering with the secrets of Islamic potters. Regions like Deruta and Gubbio became pivotal centers of lustre production. These weren’t mere replications but a fusion – a combination of Islamic technique with the Renaissance’s humanistic and natural motifs.

The British Revival

Fast forward to the 1800s, and we witness a resurgence of this ancient art in Britain. Pioneers like William de Morgan, inspired by the Moorish designs and their Gubbio counterparts, ‘rediscovered’ lustre, melding its traditional aesthetics with Victorian sensibilities.

Yet, the factories of Cantagalli in Florence or Pilkington’s in Lancashire weren’t just resurrecting a technique; they were paying homage to an age-old tradition that had its roots in the Islamic world.

A Timeless Journey

The journey of lustre from the Middle Eastern deserts to the bustling centers of Europe isn’t just a tale of artistic migration; it’s a testament to the enduring allure of Islamic art and its profound influence on global aesthetics. The tale of lustreware underscores that art knows no boundaries, and the shimmering legacy of Islamic ceramics continues to radiate, influencing and inspiring, transcending time and territories.

Collection of European tiles with Islamic-influenced lustre technique, featuring designs such as anthemions, griffins, cranes, and duck-like creatures.
arthenware tile (1), Earthenware tile (2), Earthenware tile (3), Earthenware tile (4); British Museum; Photo by Kianoush for Craftestan

Conclusion

The tales of Islamic ceramics are not just stories about materials molded by fire but narratives shaped by centuries of evolution, passion, and artistry. These tales have borne witness to empires’ rise and fall, to the melding of traditions and to the innovation of techniques. They remind us of the intricate web of interconnectedness that binds diverse cultures together and showcases the boundless fluidity of art.

From the bustling markets of ancient Baghdad, where the very essence of lustre was born, to the regal courts of Spain, where it was admired and emulated, and further to the quiet studios of modern British potters, this journey is an emblematic one. Each stop on this journey, every twist and turn, has added to the rich narrative, leading to the creation of pieces that are as much a testimony to human creativity as they are to resilience and adaptation.

The gleaming artifacts, with their shimmering surfaces and intricate designs, do not just sit as decorative pieces in museums or private collections. They echo conversations between civilizations, dialogues between artists across time and space, and the ceaseless quest for beauty and perfection. The journey of lustre, enameling, and gilding is truly a vivid tapestry of history, resilience, and brilliance, a testament to humanity’s shared legacy in the world of Islamic ceramics and its inexhaustible spirit of creation.

About Craftestan

As we reflect on the enduring beauty and heritage of lustre, enameling, and gilding, we’re reminded of the values that bind these timeless arts. In this spirit, allow us to introduce you to Craftestan, our embodiment of art, culture, and history.

Craftestan isn’t simply a business. It’s a tapestry of stories, a confluence of emotions, and a commitment to preserving the exquisite Persian culture. Every piece you see on our platform isn’t just an artifact but a representation of an artist’s dream, journey, and soul. By supporting Craftestan, you aren’t just purchasing an item; you’re fostering dreams and championing a rich cultural heritage.

Now, as you revel in the intertwining tales of arts from different eras and regions, we invite you to step into the world of Craftestan. Adorn your homes with authentic Persian handcrafted homewares that echo tales of yesteryears and visions of tomorrow. Discover our range of decorative vases, ornate plates, candy jars, and so much more. Experience the culmination of history, art, and passion in every curve and colour.

FAQs

What is the historical significance of enamelling on Islamic glass and ceramics?

The Islamic world boasts a rich tapestry of artistry and among its gems are the craftsmanship on glass and ceramics. Enamelling on glass and the radiant lustre painting on ceramics are two techniques that have stood out over time, with pieces like the Samara bowl exemplifying the beauty of lustre and representing the rich legacy of Arab potters.

How did the lustre technique in Islamic ceramics evolve and spread geographically?

The lustre technique originated in Iraq and was primarily used to emulate the dazzling allure of precious metals on ceramics. It soon found its way to ceramic centres of Egypt, Syria, and Iran. As it traveled, the technique underwent innovations, such as the transition from earthenware to stonepaste in Egypt. Pieces like the Kashani tile from Kashan, Iran, epitomise the culmination of these evolutionary phases and the transcontinental voyage of the technique.

How did European regions, especially Italy, integrate and adapt the Islamic art of lustre?

By the 16th century, Italy, particularly regions like Deruta and Gubbio, embraced the lustre technique. The influence of Spanish lustreware on Italian Maiolica became evident in pieces where the Islamic technique was merged with Renaissance’s humanistic and natural motifs. For instance, the dish from Deruta showcased a blend of Middle Eastern craftsmanship with Italian aesthetics, while Gubbio’s ceramics further accentuated the art of lustre.

How did the legacy of Islamic ceramics influence European artistry, particularly in Britain?

The art of lustre, rooted in the Islamic world, found its way into Europe through Spain and later to Italy during the Renaissance. By the 1800s, Britain saw a resurgence of this art with pioneers like William de Morgan drawing inspiration from Moorish designs and their counterparts in Italy. This wasn’t just a revival; it was a homage to an age-old tradition that originated in the Islamic world. The journey of lustre underscores that art knows no boundaries and the legacy of Islamic ceramics continues to influence global aesthetics.

Related Blog Posts

Dive into the Magic of Oriental Living

Unlock exclusive content! Join the Craftestan Be Inspired community now. .. plus enjoy 15% OFF  your first purchase

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *