28 April 2014

A Collection of Antique Islamic Pottery

Our May 2014 calendar illustration: an Iranian fritware beaker, 
from the 12th-13th centuries. Image copyright Parvum Opus

When I was searching for subjects to paint for our 2014 calendar, I came across the beautiful beaker you see above in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I was instantly drawn to the colors and imagery in this ancient piece, although I had no knowledge of this category of objects. It's one of the things I love most about creating our calendar: a piece will catch my eye, and then, wonderfully, lead me down a path of investigation and discovery that I may have missed otherwise! 

An Iranian fritware bowl with a horseman, female figures, 

and pseudo-kufic inscription, late 12th-early 13th centuries.

Image courtesy the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

This class of pottery is referred to as Islamic stonepaste or fritware, among other names. According to Wikipedia, "frit is a ceramic composition that has been fused in a special fusing oven, quenched to form a glass, and granulated." Islamic pottery of this period incorporated frit with the clay to produce a mixture that could be fired at a lower temperature than pure clay. Interestingly, a 'how-to' book on this specialized form of pottery survives. It was written in about the year 1300 by Abu'l Qasim bin Ali bin Muhammed bin Abu Tahir. Abu'l Qasim was member of an important family of potters as well as a historian to the Mongol court. His recipes for fritware and lusterware are part of a larger work entitled The Virtues of Jewels and the Delicacies of Perfume. 

An Iranian fritware ewer, ca. 11th-13th centuries.
Image courtesy The Louvre.

I came across a scholarly translation of this work by J. W. Allan, and found myself marveling at these words, written so long ago. Below is an intriguing excerpt, could it perhaps be the recipe used by the potters to create our beautiful beaker?? 

An Iranian bowl, similar to our inspirational beaker, with a horseman, 

female figures, and pseudo-kufic inscription. 

Image courtesy the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

"§25. The vessels are then coated with a glaze frit which has been ground up, finely sifted, and dissolved in water, and are stood on top of a broad-meshed sieve, which is the lid of a trough, so that excess of colour drips away. They are dried in the sun. If they want a green ground they coat on a mixture of ten parts powdered glaze to a quarter of a part of [a mithqal of] roasted copper. The craftsmen call this tini. It comes out of the firing transparent green, like green glass. If they use one part of [brayed] lajvard to forty parts of glaze frit it becomes transparent blue like a sapphire. If for every ten [or: two] parts of glaze frit they add 1 part of maghnisiya it comes out black as shabeh, and if they add less it comes out a red the colour of an eggplant. If they want an opaque colour such as turquoise they add for every man of ground tin ten dirhams of ground roasted cooper [sic: copper?], and coat this on. If they want lajvard colour they add [to the glaze frit] ten dirhams of Sulaimani lajvard and daub and coat the vessels with that. If they want a greyer tone they put in less lajvard and add a small amount of red sirinj. If they use an absolutely plain colour the vessels come out of the heat white."

A Persian pottery vase , ca. 17th-18th centuries.
Image courtesy Kaminski Auctioneers.

"§27. Those that come out of the firing white they paint with the enamel of two firings, or with lajvard, or with pure turquoise. [Or they are translucent and require no enamel painting.] The enamel is composed as follows: Take one and a half mans [or: parts] of red and yellow arsenic, one man [or: part] of gold and silver marcasite, one batman [or: half a part] of Tisi [or: Tabasi or Cypriot] yellow vitriol and a quarter [of a part] of roasted copper, and mix it to a paste and grind it. A quarter of this is mixed with six dirhams of pure silver which has been burned and ground [with sulphur] and is ground on a stone for twenty-four hours until it is extremely fine. Dissolve this in some grape juice or vinegar and paint it onto the vessels as desired, and place them in a second kiln specially made for this purpose, and give them light smoke for seventy-two hours until they acquire the colour of two firings [which is like gold]. When they are cold take them out and rub them with damp earth so that the colour of gold comes out. Other people add certain preparations like sirinj and zanjar to this enamel. In fact, shadanaj stone with roasted silver serves the same purpose. That which has been evenly fired reflects like red gold and shines like the light of the sun."

How wonderfully descriptive! One can find poetry and beauty in the most unexpected places, even an old 'recipe' book.


  1. Hello Erika,
    Yes, delicious words indeed to describe the methods used to decorate these hauntingly beautiful objects. The depth of colour in the glaze is truly wonderful and gives the pieces such a very special feeling.

    And, it is always intriguing when one comes face to face with objects which were produced so many centuries earlier. What tales they could tell if only they could speak.....

    1. Dear Jane and Lance,
      Thank you for your message-- it was such a treat to come across such an ancient "cook book"! For me, reading this text brought these objects, previously only admired for their looks ;) to life in a new way... A first-hand account really starts fires the imagination, doesn't it?!

      Warm regards,

  2. Hello, Erika,

    I always marvel at your control of the watercolor medium. Your fritware image and the choice of flowers in complementary colors is wonderful. I think the Hunt Botanical Library should mount an exhibition of your work!

    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your message, but you are really much too kind! I have no claims on true painting talent-- I honestly just love the process of painting these illustrations as away of looking very closely at a fascinating piece... It's sort of an excuse to dally over something beautiful! But I thank you for your compliment-- all the more wonderful as it comes from a true talent like you...

      Warm regards,

  3. Hello Erika, I love ancient ceramics, and Islamic pottery inherited a lot of those techniques and traditions. In addition to the vessels you have illustrated, they also excelled at tiles and architectural pieces.

    Your painting is as always a tour de force. I admire the way the green/white gradient in the clothing is reflected in the flower buds/bases.

    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your message and very kind words-- I'm so pleased that you enjoyed seeing these objects... I'm with you: the ancient ceramics are especially wonderful as they illustrate so much about the spiritual/artistic/daily lives of their creators... I know very little about Islamic pottery, but coming upon that treatise has inspired me to keep reading and looking...

      Warm regards,