It is extremely difficult to define Islamic artwork, there are many contradicting influences and adaptations of other artistic traditions. One common thread in Islamic decorative arts is the adaptation of pre-existing artistic styles from different cultures. Chinese blue and white porcelain is one example of an artistic tradition that heavily influenced the style and technical process of Islamic ceramics. Through a combination of trade and expansions Islamic Empires like the Abbasids, and the Ottomans came into contact with the distinct Ming period ceramics.
The imitations and importation of Chinese porcelain was caused by the novelty and beauty of these foreign ceramics. The first important technological change in Islamic ceramics was the application of a white body slip over the earthenware clay of a fired ceramic object to replication the pure whiteness of Chinese porcelain. Then in the 11th century the next key technical innovation was the creation of stonepaste or fritware, clay that almost perfectly replicated the look and feel of porcelain. Over time, Chinese motifs like dragons, lotuses and birds were modified and replicated with more common Islamic motifs used in other decorative art forms. It was not until the 16th century, the beginning of the Inzik period, that complete adoption and adaptation of Chinese blue and white porcelain occurred. The exportation of Chinese blue and white porcelain to the Middle East from the Abassid to the Ottoman period heavily influenced the stylistic and technological production of Islamic ceramics.
The Platter with Fish Pattern is one example of many forms of Chinese blue and white ceramics created for export in the 14th century (Appendix 2) (Garner). The blue and white style of pottery was first created in the early 12th century but did not gain popularity in China until the Ming dynasty from the 14th to 17th century (Macintosh). This style of platter was highly valued and desired by the wealthy and ruling class since it was created in China. True Chinese porcelain was considered to be of the highest possible quality because of the white color and hardness that allowed for thin walled ceramics (Denny). This platter was created in Jingdezhen China (Appendix 3). The blue cobalt oxide glaze would have been painted on the white-bodied porcelain before firing. This platter would have been created solely for exportation but may have been consumed within China’s borders as well (Pope).
Unlike the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons, the symbolism behind the Platter with Fish Pattern is much easier to decipher. There are three circular bands of designs on the platter with increasing levels of abstraction closer to the edge. In Chinese culture the fish is a symbol of prosperity and wealth especially when paired with the abstract underwater plants that frame the fish. There is some depth of field implied in the central design since there is overlapping eelgrass (Macintosh). The next section of decoration consists of entwined vines and lotus flowers in a scroll pattern that frames the central design. The final layer of diamond shaped geometric design bridges the gap between the edge of the dish and the lotus design. Individually each layer of design formally does not interact with each other but the platter, as a whole possesses a balance between blue and white. The platter symbolizes good fortune to the owner.
The Abbasid Dish was created during the rule of the Abassid caliphs in Iraq and combines the ceramic traditions of Chinese porcelain and Abassid earthenware ceramics (Rosser-Owen)(Appendix 4 & 5). There has been a longstanding tradition of Chinese influences on Islamic ceramics since about the 4th century (Rosser-Owen). The Romans and Egyptians heavily influenced early Islamic pottery and it was not until the 9th century that a distinct style emerged under the rule of the Abbasids. Ceramic artisans were inspired by their natural surrounding and other formals of decorative art forms like metalwork. At the time Islamic ceramics were made from earthenware clay that was a medium brown color vastly different from the color of Chinese porcelain.
Abbasid artisans incorporated elements from Chinese Ming Dynasty porcelain into their ceramics by covering up the brown earthenware body with the invention and application of a white slip. This is the first adaption in the technological process of ceramic creation that demonstrates the desire to imitate of Chinese ceramics. The white slip mimicked the pure whiteness of Chinese porcelain like the late Ming dynasty period Jar with Dragon (Appendix 11). The slip also acted as a smooth canvas for additional glaze application (Jenkins). This advancement allowed Islamic artisans to produce a product that was visually similar to Chinese porcelain without the high export cost (Jenkins).
The Abbasid Dish represents the combination of two distinct artistic traditions on one piece of pottery. The first common Abbasid motif exhibited in this piece is the inclusion of a phrase in the center of dishes so that as an individual consumes a meal the phrase is slowly revealed. The quote in the center of this dish is a blessing for the owner (Jenkins). Surrounding the Abbasid Dish’s quote is a dark blue radial abstract vegetal design called palmettes. Palmettes are commonly seen on other decorative objects such as mihrabs or decorative tiles (Hess). The most notable stylistic element of the Abbasid Dish is the diffused quality of the colored glaze. It looks like ink that has bled into wet paper. To summarize, the Abbasid Dish demonstrates how Islamic artisans imitated some elements of Chinese porcelain while maintaining the integrity of the decorations that follow in the tradition of Islamic ceramics.
The Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons is a cumulative example of the development of Islamic ceramic style through the adoption of Chinese motifs combined with Islamic motifs (Appendix 1). The plate was created in Iran in about 1640. While there is only one glaze on this dish, the variety of tone implies a shallow depth of space. For example, the two central dragons overlap each other and form an almost symmetrical six-pointed star. The volume of each dragon’s body is implied through the use of shading to create a sense of roundness. Although it may be hard to see, the dragons bite each other’s underbellies, in a perfectly balanced never ending-battle. The fierce facial expressions also support the theory that the dragons are depicted mid-battle. Behind the dragons is an abstract repeating cloud pattern that frames the central figures. Since the pattern becomes smaller closer to the center, the viewer’s focus is drawn to the entwined dragons. Around the edge of the central section of the dish, there are six small cloud crests glazed in a darker blue. These small areas of darker tone break up the repetitiveness of the cloud pattern. Overall the small-scale pattern adds energy and movement to the battling dragons.
The middle band on the dish has a more abstract vegetal design with six dark blue lotus flowers that pop off the white background. Each lotus flower is positioned right above a tip of the six-pointed star. The contrast between the more intense decoration in the central design and the relative scarcity by comparison in the middle band breaks up the intense concentration of glaze in the center of the dish. The last and smallest band on the dish around the edge is a cloud motif. The farther out from the center of the dish the more abstract the patterns become. Cumulatively the three bands of pattern within the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons compliment each other despite the variety of scale and different levels of detail. From a distance the combination of the fighting dragons, lotus flowers and cloud details the entire dish seems to move.
The symbols on Chinese blue and white porcelain implies a specific message but since the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons was created in Iran the meaning is more difficult to decipher. Most likely this design or aspects of this design were imported from China from paper pattern books or through other ceramics (Medley). In Chinese culture, the dragon represents the masculine power of the emperor and is a symbol of fertility (Chinese Symbols). In Islamic culture the dragon can have positive or negative associations depending on the region (Rosser-Owen). Since the two dragons are caught mid battle, it can be assumed that the Chinese meaning is has been diluted to a reference to masculine power. The lotus flowers surrounding the two entwined dragons are a reference to purity and are Buddhist in origin.
The Platter with Fish Pattern and Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons visually present similar motifs. Both have central animal figures with an organic backdrop. Also have three separate rings of decoration and would have been displayed or used by the wealthiest individuals.
The main similarity between the Abbasid Dish and the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons despite over six hundred years between the creation of either piece is the color palette. Both dishes have a white clay body and a dark blue glaze. Both designs also have mostly symmetrical designs that frame a central element. The mere fact that these pieces have those elements in common is surprising and demonstrates the powerful influence that other artistic traditions have on Islamic decorative arts.
The Dish with Lotus Pattern created in the 16th century in Iran demonstrates how Chinese blue and white style porcelain was adapted to reflect the desires and tastes of consumers at the time through the exhibition of Islamic motifs (Appendix 6).
The Dish with Lotus Pattern is made from stonepaste, a technical innovation that allowed for almost perfect replication of Chinese porcelain. It is believed that while potters in Bagdad were adding glass fragments to clay bodies as early as the 8th century. It was during the 10th century in Egypt that that quartz and fritz were incorporated into clay bodies. It wasn’t until midway through the 11th century in Iraq and Iran that the ratio of clay was greatly reduced and more quartz added that true stonepaste or fritware was created. The composition of stonepaste is about 75% quartz, 15% frit with lead and lime and roughly 10% clay (Tite). Once fired, frit acted as a binding agent between all other elements (Makariou). The resulting product looks and feels very similar to porcelain once fired; both have a light body color and are very hard allowing for thin-walled ceramic goods (Denny). The only noticeable difference between the two is that stonepaste tends to have a slight yellow tint that was normally hidden with a white coat of slip before the final design was added (Appendix 7). The intensity of the blue glaze also hides any yellow tones in the clay body.
Formally the geometrical lotus motif is perfectly symmetric around the central lotus flower. The large central flower is the darkest area on the dish and is delicately framed by a spiraling vine that is visually similar to calligraphy and would never appear on Chinese porcelain (Avery,). The eight-point star or two overlapping squares that surround the central lotus and vine is called a “khatim” and is a seal of the prophets (Rosser-Owen). In Chinese culture the eight-pointed star is used to refer to the vastness of the universe (Chinese Symbols). The next section of the dish features smaller lotuses each surrounded by a spiraling vine. Between each lotus there is a diamond with a vegetal design in the interior. This section of the plate containers miniaturized design elements from the central section of the plate. Along the outer edge is an abstract spiral and cloud design that mimics the form of the foliaged edge.
Though the Dish with Lotus Pattern was created within the same time period and after the same artistic trend as the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons, visually each dish favors a specific artistic tradition. The Dish with Lotus Pattern can be viewed as two steps away from direct imitations of Chinese blue and white porcelain because the style of the decorations are in the Islamic tradition of decorative arts. Formally there are two similarities between each dish; both have three distinct decorative sections with blue glaze and a bright white background. The outmost edge of each dish has a foliaged edge and a thematically similar cloud design.
The Golden Horn Dish created in the 16th century is an early Inzik piece that reveals how Ottoman artisans adopted and transformed Chinese ceramic motifs into something radically new (Appendix 8). Inzik ceramics was initially created to meet the demands of the Ottoman sultans who highly prized Chinese ceramics. It was during the height of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 16th century in the town of Inzik (modern day Turkey) that Inzik ceramics were produced (Appendix 9). The majority of items produced were decorative tiles and ceramic goods such as flat dishes with symmetrical floral patterns (Appendix 10). The color palette transformed from just blue and white to also include turquoise and later a dark red (Denny).
This dish was created in the early 16th century during the peak of the Inzik ceramics production in a vastly different cultural climate than the Dish with Two intertwined Dragons. The design is called tugrakes spirals or the golden horn motif since many examples of the design have been found near an inlet called the Golden Horn near Istanbul. The tondino dish form has a wide flat brim and a small deep center (Denny). The spirals are darker and more concentrated towards the outer edge where they merge with a solid blue line of glaze around the edge. The undecorated center section divides the interior and edge decoration by two thin blue lines. The pure whiteness of the center section breaks up the concentrated intensity of the layered tugrakes spirals.
The Golden Horn Tondino can be seen as a conclusive piece of pottery in the adoption and modification of Chinese blue and white porcelain by Islamic artisans.
It shows the adaptation and then adoption of a foreign style until an entirely new artistic tradition was created. The only common elements between the Golden Horn Tondino and the Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons are that both are made from stonepaste and have a blue glaze design. Both pieces do have three decorative sections but each artisan used those areas differently.
From the Abbasids to the Ottoman Empire, the exportation of highly valued Chinese blue and white porcelain influenced local Islamic artisans and led to the development of Inzik ceramics. Not only was the stylistic aspect of ceramic production of Islamic ceramics changed because of the exportation of Chinese porcelain but also the technological process of creating these items. This revolution would not have occurred without extended exposure to the motifs of Ming period Chinese porcelain. The slow saturation of Chinese porcelain in Islamic culture influenced and changed the ceramic traditions established by the Abbasids in the 9th century (Jenkins). Although Islamic art may be difficult to define, the key influences are identifiable.
1 Dish with Two Intertwined Dragons
2 Platter with Fish Pattern
- Map of China
4 Abbasid Dish
5 Map of Abbasid Empire
6 Dish with Lotus Pattern
7 Comparison of Porcelain and Stonepaste
8 Golden Horn Dish
9 Map of the Ottoman Empire
10 Tile Panel with Wavy-Vine Design
11. Jar with Dragon
Date: Early 15th Century
Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art
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