Discrepancies in the Classification of the Rayy and Kashan Styles.
The beginning of the Seljuq period marked a wave of cultural opulence with the introduction of a new type of pottery known as lustre ware. In the following 300 years, Persia would see the production of some of the most beautiful pieces of pottery. In the center of one such lustre ware bowl is a depiction of the famous Shahnama story of Bahram Gur and his concubine Azada. On a hunting excursion Azada doubts Bahram Gur’s abilities as an archer and challenges him to pin a gazelle’s leg to its ear. After he successfully makes the shot, she criticized him for being cruel, which angers him leading him to trample her to death with his camel. The violence of the scene in the bowl is overlooked at first glances, but then the viewer notices the repeated image of Azada sitting on the camel and being stepped on by the camel. The genius of the superimposing the two defining scenes of the story to create continuous narrative is lost to many modern viewers having grown up with television. The neutrality of the faces gives no direction to how one should emotionally react to the scene. Faces in Persian art are often drawn very similar, round heads with small eyes which each have a thin line coming from the ends to the sides of the face and small mouths which usually lack any emotional expression. The painter depicts two snapshots from a story that many people of the time would know, but probably had never seen visually depicted. The beauty of this piece, however, does not lie in the characters or the story, but in the decorations in which it is framed.
Against a white background, Bahram Gur extends a bow in a downward direction and sits in front of Azada on a camel with a blue cover over its hump. He wears a beige garment filled with brown scrolls. Azada is depicted in two places, sitting behind Bahram Gur on the camel in a green garment and laying on the ground under the camel in a blue garment with dots. To the left of the camel are two gazelle, one white, and the other (with its leg pinned to its head) is also blue with dots like Azada. A small red and blue bird is also depicted. These images are restricted to the center of the bowl with an arabesque border of diamonds with alternating red and green triangles coming off from the sides all connected with blue filling in the spaces to create a smooth circle. The open spaces of the center are taken up by plants consisting of thin, sprawling stems with blue and red dots on either side to represent leaves. Surrounding the center of the bowl is a circular arrangement of people on horses playing polo. The clothing of the horse riders alternates in color and design between green, blue, and brown, along with the color of the horses which alternate, between black, blue, white, and red/brown. The multiple position of the horses and riders, in addition to the rotational position on the bowl creates a sense of motion similar the revolving stories depicted on Greek pottery, or for a more modern example a zoetrope. The border of the bowl is a Kufic inscription in blue lettering with an outline of red. The space between letters is filled with thin scroll work. The very edge of the bowl is a repetitive border of inward facing blue triangles.
This piece shows many common characteristics of other pieces of Persian lustre ware. As art scholars began discovering these pieces they noticed these characteristics and came to the conclusion that they could be categorized by these characteristics into distinct styles. The indication of this was that pieces attributed to certain regions had certain common characteristics. Usually the evidence needed to establish localization is that ceramic ware was either found there near a kiln, or writing on it indicates where it was produced. The method for cataloguing these pieces consists of first identifying distinct characteristics of pieces that can be accurately localized, then identifying other pieces with the same characteristics, and finally identifying more characteristics that are common of those identified pieces. Through this, styles were identified along with their distinguishing characteristics. Difficulty of this kind of classification by style is that it did not account for the spread of the style to other regions after it gained any popularity. Evidence shows pieces of certain styles being made in multiple regions. Artists moved around, produced in multiple areas, and moreover did not always restrict themselves to one style.
The result of the imprecision by which characteristics were assigned to styles is disagreement among scholars about which characteristics are distinct for each styles. This is especially relevant to the Rayy and Kashan styles. Only a few pieces can be accurately attributed to each of these cities and different scholars use different works for the basis of their categorization. Rayy also stopped production of lustre ware after the Mongol invasion and many potters moved to Kashan. The result was Rayy style pottery coming out of Kashan, either from Rayy artists or Kashan artists practicing in the Rayy style. This is why scholars say it’s necessary to distinguish the styles as opposed to just associating the style with the region it was likely produced in.
The bowl of Bahram Gur and Azada contains many characteristics that are used for distinguishing styles. Of these include: specific motifs plants and animals, clothing design, space fullness, figure size, detail specificity, brush stroke fluidity, geometric designs, and the inscription. To determine how the characteristics of this piece and others indicate its style three scholars who wrote on this classification are Arthur Pope, Richard Ettinghausen, and Oliver Watson. Among the three scholars they all agree that many of the characteristics associated with specific styles cannot be used to distinguish them because of the vast amount of overlap that takes place. However, each point to certain motifs that they believe can be used to accurately distinguish them. These motifs, they claim, can only be found in one style, but an analysis of a few of these pieces show that they all disagree with each other on characteristic motifs in some way or another. To subject all available pieces to the same analysis, characteristics defined by these scholars related to material or color use will not be mentioned since many of the only available pictures of these pieces are low quality or black and white.
The history of Rayy and Kashan categorization begins with Richard Ettinghausen who identified the Kashan style in his essay titled Evidence of the Identification of Kashan Pottery (1936). He used mihrab tiles in Kashan as the basis of defining motifs, and with the motifs and characteristics of these pieces, continued to assign other motifs and characteristics to the Kashan style. The “diagnostic” motifs he puts images of in his paper include birds, leaves, and arabesque designs. He also notes as characteristic of the Kashan style a tendency to fill the background with scroll or foliate design, a characteristic that all the scholars attribute to the Kashan style. Ettinghausen did point out pieces from Rayy, but only to distinguish characteristics of the Kashan style, so his categorizations will only be used in identifying the Kashan characteristics.
Three years later, Arthur Upham Pope released one of the most comprehensive examinations of Persian art, titled A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present (1938-1939). He praises Ettinghausen for his initial work of cataloguing the Kashan style and goes on to make the distinction between the Kashan style and the Rayy style. He cites multiple pieces of pottery found in Rayy, and goes through the same process of cataloguing the characteristics of the style and certain motifs that can be used to identify it. He also makes the distinction between the Rayy miniature style and the monumental style, the simplest difference being the former using small figures and the latter using large ones that take up the majority of the piece. In addition, he added to and made some small alterations to the previous guidelines made by Ettinghausen for identifying the Kashan style. He still uses most of the characteristics of the Kashan style that Ettinghausen identified so he will be rightly credited when they are referenced. Pope points out that the Rayy and Kashan style are sometimes difficult to differentiate as many characteristics of each are found in the other. He points out motifs that can be used to identify each style more definitively. One set of motifs he puts out for categorizing the styles is in the drawings of faces, but since the differences in some of these motifs are so subtle it won’t be used in this paper as there is a high risk of incorrectly identifying them. He also goes into detail on the Sava style, which he states is a culmination of the Rayy and Kashan style, and explains pottery that contains distinctive motifs of each style.
Almost forty years later Oliver Watson writes an analysis of these two styles titled Persian Lustre-Painted Pottery: The Rayy and Kashan Styles (1974) and states his own views on their characteristics and defining motifs. Watson criticizes Pope for the wasters (small pieces of broken pottery) and pieces that he uses as the basis for the Rayy style. He says there are only two pieces that he has seen that definitely were made there. He also points to records that state that the city of Rayy fell into fighting around 1220. Taking this together, he makes the claim that Rayy stopped producing pottery around this time. He states Rayy potters likely moved to Kashan and continued the style. Two Rayy style pieces made by the famous Kashan potter Abu Zaid suggest that Kashan potters produced Rayy style pottery. Watson recognizes that the Kashan style has many characteristics of the Rayy miniature and monumental style, and states that it was a likely development from the two styles. The claim made by Pope about the city of Sava being a producer of pottery, he says, is based in little evidence. He likens the fact that “Sava” pieces contain Kashan and Rayy characteristics to the pieces being produced between the shifts into the Kashan style. Watson describes the characteristics of the Rayy (both miniature and monumental) and Kashan styles and recognizes that some characteristics of one style can also be found in pieces of the other style. Like Pope and Ettinghausen, he also points to a few motifs that can be used to accurately identify the styles.
Each scholar recognizes that many of the characteristics of the styles cannot be solely used for their identification. However, they all state that there are certain motifs that are only used in one style. The motifs may be used to identify styles according to their own views of the style, but an analysis of pottery that the scholars have labeled to a specific style shows that there is vast disagreement between them on how to categorize the pottery.
1. The bowl with the Bahram Gur subject can be labeled as being in the Rayy miniature style. The center motif is filled with what Watson called “dotted-plants”. These were stems with dots along the sides and he said that their appearance can be used to identify Rayy pottery. The band of four-spiked stars encircling the center motif is specific to a collection of Rayy style pieces that Pope identified. Pope says it is likely that they came from the same workshop or even a school. The artist of this bowl (along with three other bowls that can be attributed) likely worked with Ali Ibn Yusuf who’s signature appears on a bowl with the same band of stars. Pope does note that the sheer superiority of this artist’s work to Ali’s meant he was likely a progenitor or possibly his father. Other than the rare insight that this piece and others give about stylistic choice from a single production site, this piece is representative of the Rayy miniature style. The geometric patterns on textiles are hardly seen in the Rayy monumental style. Each figure stands out against the plain white background, and taken with the use of miniatures, indicates the Rayy style. The very edge is dotted with blue, followed by blocky, even Kufic script creating a border just inside, the uniformity of which is distinctive of the Rayy style. This piece is easy to identify, mostly because all the characteristics of it are generally agreed upon as attributable to the Rayy style.
2. The differences in style can be seen on a bowl depicting the same story of Bahram Gur and Azada but in a way more characteristic of the Kashan style. This is a monumental piece as shown by the fact that the main figures take up the entire piece. Bahram Gur extends a bow and his concubine Azada holds a wide sword as they both sit on a camel. Bahram Gur wears a design of blue hexagons outlined in gold and Azada wears a design of white leaf motifs with green dots against a brown base. Under the foot of the camel is another image of Azada this time in a chevron garment. Both images of Azada have her wearing a turquoise turban with a gold medallion and Bahram Gur has a similar turban with two pieces of gold on top. A person on a blue horse, wearing a white, green, and gold foliate design and a red hat are partially depicted in the scene, being cut off by the edge of the bowl. Two bird motifs with a turquoise body and brown appendages are under the camel. A gazelle with an arrow sticking its leg to its head is in blue near the side of the bowl in the direction of Bahram Gur’s bow. Immediately to the left is a cypress tree with a turquoise top and cross-hatching in the center of it. The border of the bowl has a light blue arabesque design with turquoise leaf like motifs in each design repetition. The motifs are outlined in black and each have four red and two gold dots surrounding its’ edges. Every person has a gold halo behind their head.
This piece is definitely a less traditional illustration of the Kashan style. There are four likely reasons Pope labeled this piece as Kashan in his survey. First, geometric patterns on textiles are usually not seen in the monumental Rayy style but do occur in the Kashan style. Second, the figures extend to the border, with some only being partially within. Third, the halos around the moon-shaped faces. The last characteristic was identified by Ettinghausen in Evidence. Watson would likely refute this categorization on the basis of the lack of design used to fill space, which is common in the Kashan style. He might also say that cypress tree with the cross-hatch design as too similar to the checker board cypress tree, a motif he says is only found in the Rayy style. Pope’s categorization says a lot about what it means for a piece to be of a style. Many of the seemingly more important characteristics of styles do not have to be present when others are. The painting here copies many things from the previous Bahram Gur bowl, including the birds. The Kashan style almost always uses specific motifs of birds, but the ones present in this piece are more common in the Rayy style. It should be noted that the bird motifs common in the Rayy style ware is not identified by any of these scholars despite how often they appear in Rayy style pottery. The physical position of Bahram Gur and Azada on the camel with Azada underneath the camel is almost identical to the depiction in the previous bowl, even down to the hand positions. It is unknown why the depictions are so similar. One may have copied the other, or there might have been a mutual source that the design was based off of. Nevertheless, this is an example of some of the ways in which the Kashan style depicts the same subject differently.
3. The features of the next piece exemplifies stronger disagreements in each scholars’ system of classification. This monochrome bowl depicts two silhouettes of swan-like animals, facing away from each other, yet connected at the breast. At the bottom of the bowl are four broad leaves with lines on the inside coming from the leaf base and dots at the end of the lines. They are against a solid background with a white line creating a border between the rest of the bowl. Three (two on the sides and a larger one in the middle) checker board cypress trees rise from the border, towards the top of the bowl, the third touching the edge. Two people sit at the top of the bowl between the checkered cypress tree, wearing garments with foliate scroll. The border is broken into blocks with the same scroll design in each block. The background is filled with scroll and leaf motifs. In this piece there are two motifs that the scholars have defined as distinctive of a style. The checkered cypress tree, Watson would claim, is enough to indicate that it is the Rayy style. This he says, only appears in the Rayy style. The leaf motifs at the bottom of the bowl were identified by Pope as being distinctive of the Kashan style, along with some of the leaf motifs in the background. Pope would likely claim that because of these conflicting motifs that it is the Sava style, but the legitimacy of this categorization is weak. Both scholars would agree with Ettinghausen’s identification of scroll work to fill the background being characteristic of the Kashan style. However, since this has been seen in the Rayy style on occasion, they would likely bring up their motifs as justification for their respective classification. The level of detail in the scroll and foliate background is not intricate or basic enough to assign it to either Kashan or Rayy (respectively) on that basis.
4. The next piece is a monumental one featuring a person riding a horse as the primary image. The garments have a foliate scroll design and a halo if behind the persons head. An angel in a striped shirt and foliate scroll pants flies behind the person, also with a halo. There are a few motifs of birds, one of a fox, and one of a rabbit, in the space not taken up by the person. Single or double stems with dots as leaves on the side are drawn under and at the sides of the person and horse. A cypress tree with a cross-hatch design is on the left. Chevron comes off the border of the top of the bowl with a thick line curved in three areas stopping it (similar to a curtain being held in three places). This piece was assigned to the Kashan style by Pope in his Survey. He notes the similarities in some motifs to other Kashan pieces including the pattern of the garment, the chevron (to indicate a cloud), the cross-hatch cypress tree, and less accurately shown lily on a curving stock (dotted plants), horned lark, and hare and fox. He also notes the trefoil which is a common motif of the Kashan style. Watson would likely point out the dotted plants, a major identifier of the Rayy style, along with the cypress tree. The background is not filled with any design like most monumental Kashan style pieces. The drawings are all sketchy indicative of the Rayy monumental style. Ettinghausen might identify this as Kashan considering the moon-shaped faces with halos, but the lack of background scroll work may turn him off from that. Interesting to note is a hawk motif, very similar (albeit more crude) to a hawk motif that Pope marks later as being of the Rayy style. The other bird motifs are much closer to common bird motifs (that none of the scholars mention) in the Rayy style than the bird motifs of the Kashan style identified by Ettinghausen and expanded by Pope. The fox motif is also much more similar to a fox motif on a Rayy style jug than the fox motifs Pope identifies as being Kashan style.
5. The final piece is an off-white jug split into three sections mainly painted in brown, save the garments of the people and a few other minor areas. The bottom section (around 20%) is a design of arabesque mesh with hatched lozenges. The middle section (around 60%) features images of people sitting and interacting, with moon-shaped faces and halos. Their garments are blue and/or turquoise with designs of leaf motifs or scrolls, some with thick solid lines. The space is filled with scrolls and motifs of leaves and birds. The upper section has two Kufic inscriptions, the lower one more freely done, and the upper one, right at the stem of the jug, done in a more uniform manner against a blue base. The handle is hard to see but has an arabesque design done in turquoise, and the stem has a Kufic inscription and blue coloring on its edges. This piece is featured in Pope’s survey but not assigned a style. Watson would without a question assign this to the Rayy style. The arabesque mesh with hatched lozenges, he states, is possibly the most accurate indicator of the Rayy style as it has only ever appeared on Rayy pieces. Interestingly, the original piece that this design was first found on was made by Abu Zaid, a famous Kashan potter. That piece along with two fragments also of the Rayy style are the earliest dated and signed pieces by Abu Zaid. From this he suggests that Abu Zaid originally was a potter in Rayy but moved to Kashan. This is a major piece of evidence in Watson’s argument that the vast amount of Rayy pottery was produced in Kashan. However, this piece might be an exception to his statement that the arabesque mesh with hatched lozenges design is exclusive to Rayy style pottery. The middle section of the bowl taken by itself would easily be regarded as the Kashan style. The leaf motifs in the clothing are identified by Pope as Kashan. The scroll work which fills the background is also a characteristic of the Kashan style. Within that scroll work are more leaf motifs (different from the garment ones) and bird motifs identified by Ettinghausen as indicators of the Kashan style. The moon-shaped faces with halos are also characteristics of the Kashan style, identified by Ettinghausen. Interestingly enough, the two Kufic inscriptions are characteristic of each style. The lower one is more free hand and stylishly done, with space between the edges of the band and the inscription, characteristic of the Kashan style. The upper one is blocky and even, with the band edges closer, and contains blue, all characteristic of Rayy style Kufic inscriptions. Due to these presence of “distinctive” motifs of both styles, Pope would likely assign this to the Sava style while Watson would say it was a transitional piece before the complete development of the Kashan style from the Rayy style.
The amount of “exemptions” to each of these “defining” motifs proposed by each scholar is endless. Both Pope and Watson attempt to create safety-nets for instances where their categorization fails. Pope, with little evidence as Watson points out, attributes all pieces with both Rayy and Kashan motifs to “Sava” style. Watson, explains them as “transitional” pieces between the development of the Kashan style from the Rayy style. Every single motif that they lay out for identifying a style can be found along side with motifs for identifying the other style. Neither have enough evidence to say that these motifs were consciously used by painters when they decided to paint in a specific style. There isn’t enough evidence either to say that these styles were recognized as separate by painters. The differences between pieces of the same style can be very often greater than the differences of pieces of different styles. It seems that the reason that these styles were formed is that specific motifs and characteristics were noticed to appear more often alongside other motifs and characteristics. The result of this was the creation of “styles” that can be defined by motifs and characteristics. The creation of these styles, and the exclusivity that is applied to them, means that all pottery found will attempt to be categorized as one specific style. The evidence of overlap amongst “distinguishable” motifs suggest that the potters likely did not take conforming to a single style as seriously as scholars assumed.
There would no doubt be less disagreement had scholars decided on some sort of degree to which each piece could be attributed to a style. A distinction must be made between characteristics solely found in pieces with accurately localized sites of production, and characteristics identified based on the presence of the former characteristics. Nevertheless, there are no categorizations of styles that are in anyway perfectly accurate. This is compromised by the fact that the earliest dated piece of pottery found in Kashan, signed by one of the only painters to be identified as user of the “Kashan” style, is in the “Rayy” style, showing that region of production is not substantial in categorization. The categorizations each scholar makes are based on unfounded assumptions of the significance of characteristics, while ignoring pieces with contradictory evidence, and further making claims to “explain” these pieces, clearly to circumvent any arguments against their categorizations. Currently, museums still operate on the principles of style categorizations proposed by these scholars without making clear what the categorizations are based on, leaving people to assume that each piece was intentionally painted in one style or the other, when really there is no evidence of that being the case. To accurately identify styles in pieces from this region and time period, an analysis would have to be done on all pieces to identify characteristics that only appear with other characteristics (overlap being grounds for nullification), and then the styles could be traced back regionally if evidence supports it.
Ettinghausen, Richard. Evidence for the identification of Kās̲h̲ān pottery. 1st ed. Vol. 3. Ars Islamica. New York, NY: S.n., 1936.
Pope, Arthur Upham, and Phyllis .. Ackerman, eds. A Survey of Persian Art: from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. IV. London u.a.: Oxford University Press, 1939.
Pope, Arthur Upham, and Phyllis .. Ackerman, eds. A Survey of Persian Art: from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. IX. London u.a.: Oxford University Press, 1939.
Watson, Oliver. Persian Lustre-Painted Pottery: the Rayy and Kashan styles. Vol. 40. Place of publication not identified: Oriental Ceramic Society, 1974.
Pictures of pieces and their current location.
1. Bahram Gur and Azada. Late 12th/Early 13th century, Over-glazed painted ware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of art., Accession number 57.36. !3.
2. Bowl with Bahram Gur and Azada. Late 12th/Early 13th century, Over-glazed painted ware, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of art., Accession number 57.36.2.
3. A Kashan lustre bowl with two seated figures, birds, and cypress trees, Persia, Late 12th/Early 13th century. Late 12th/Early 13th century, Lustre ware bowl, Unknown. “Now Arts of the Islamic World.” Dishes ||| Sotheby’s l12223lot5vjkgen. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2012/arts-of-the-islamic-world-2012/lot.163.html#. Lot 163.
4. Bowls, over-glaze painted. 12th or 13th century, over-glaze painted. Unknown. A Survey of Persian Art: from Prehistoric Times to the Present. Vol. IX. London u.a.: Oxford University Press, 1939. Pls 673 (Bottom).
5. Jug. Early 13th century, glazed clay, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington D.C. Collection: Arts of the Islamic world. Accession number F1929.9.