Pluralism facilitated innovative styles in the production of ceramics

The term ‘Islamic art’ generally refers to the arts of regions where Muslims comprised ‘an important, if not the most important, segment of society,’and not necessarily created by or for Muslims. The term does not refer to a particular style, but encompasses the arts produced in Muslim regions during the past fourteen centuries.

Medieval Muslim consumers and artisans considered Chinese ceramics par excellence when they came into increasing contact with these wares. In the late eighth century, the Abbasid court at Baghdad began to import large volumes of Chinese wares.

In order to produce ceramics locally, the first school of ceramics was established in Baghdad in the ninth century. While the early products of the Baghdad kilns attempted to imitate Chinese porcelains, the Islamic potters developed their own styles, producing multi-coloured wares of exquisite beauty. In the medieval Muslim world, ceramic production achieved superior creativity through the artisans’ innovations in shape and design, as well as their techniques of decoration.

A new style know as “frit-ware” or “stone-paste” developed. This method involved the addition of large amounts of crushed quartz to produce the hard, white, translucent ceramic, in an attempt to imitate the Chinese porcelains.

Fatimid rock crystal
Rock crystal ewer inscribed with the name of Fatimid Calip Imam al-Aziz (r. 975-996), 16th century European gold and enamel mount. Venice, Treasury of San Marco

One of the challenges of the Iraqi potters was the lack of ingredients, mainly kaolin, to make true porcelain, therefore, the potters invented a variety of shapes and decorative styles to please the court, including a modified form of glaze using local materials to produce ceramics that closely resembled the Chinese wares.

During the Fatimid period (909-1171), their capital, Cairo, became a vigorous centre of  ceramic production. Fatimid ceramics were much sought after in Italy, where the bowls – bacini – were used as decorative items or as vessels for religious ceremonies.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Iran, the vibrant tradition of illustrated manuscripts influenced the development of a new style of glazed pottery with numerous colours and intricate designs.

Aga Khan Museum
Ceramic dish, Ottoman Turkey, ca. 1575-80. Aga Khan Museum

Under Ottoman reign, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Turkish city of Iznik became a major centre of pottery making. Iznik was close to wood needed for kilns as well as other ingredients required for the production of ceramics. As a result, a distinctive style developed and came to be known as Iznik style: it involved combinations of a wide range of colours including cobalt blue, turquoise, green, black, and red.

‘The consistency of the Ottoman floral style helped establish a distinctive and singular visual brand for the Ottoman Empire and its arts. It is during this period that tulips caught Europe’s attention when they were first introduced there by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Austrian ambassador to the Ottoman court).’2

1Sheila Blair, Islamic Art (accessed September 2016)
2Aga Khan Museum (accessed September 2016)
Fahmida Suleman, Ceramics, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed September 2016)
John Luter, The Potters of Islam, Aramco World (accessed September 2016)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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