Syrian jar (ca 1500 - 1550)
Syrian jar (ca 1500 – 1550)

In the seventh century, Arab armies created an empire in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean. Artisans were able to move easily between the various states of this empire sharing ideas and techniques. One result was that for almost a thousand years, the Islamic countries produced some of the world’s finest ceramics.

The earliest Islamic pottery was decorated with incised patterns or patterns of applied clay but the Islamic potters greatly admired Chinese Tang Dynasty wares which reached the Arab countries by the “Silk Road of the Sea” across the Indian Ocean. At first, the whiteness of the Tang porcelain was imitated by covering earthenware with a mixture of tin oxide and a clear lead glaze – a technique used centuries earlier by the Egyptians. Using blue and green glazes, the Islamic potters produced wares closely resembling the Tang. However, the glazing techniques of the Arabs advanced rapidly and soon surpassed the Chinese.

The most important technique was the use of lustre. The technique of painting in lustre was developed by Syrian and Egyptian glassmakers who began applying it to pottery at the end of the ninth century. The technique was taken up by Mesopotamian potters who applied it particularly to relief moulded wares to imitate bronze, brass or gold. Samara and Baghdad became important pottery centres producing these lustre wares.

In the twelfth century, in an attempt to imitate Sung Dynasty porcelain, a way of producing a stronger, harder and whiter body than earthenware was developed. This material lent itself admirably to finely carved and pierced decoration and to painted designs with great linear control and tonal variety.

Spanish lustre basin (16th century)
Spanish lustre basin (16th century)

Early in the thirteenth century, another important development was made in Persia where it was discovered that coloured pigments, such as cobalt and manganese, remained stable under an alkaline glaze whereas they would run under a lead glaze. This made it possible to decorate with underglaze painting – a technique which eventually supplanted all others.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, the lustre pottery of Malaga in Moorish Spain had gained a high reputation. Because of the political and economic unrest in Moorish Spain, its craftsmen tended to move about and techniques spread from Malaga to Grenada and Valencia. In the last quarter of the fifteenth century, shapes and decoration changed under the influence of Renaissance metalware. Bowls were placed on stems and much use was made of moulds to produce repousse and gadrooning effects. Spanish lustre pottery declined through the sixteenth century as otter styles became more fashionable; it was dealt an almost fatal blow in 1609 when all Moorish people, who were the producers of most of the lustre wares, were expelled from Valencia.

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