Earthenware, fine slip, white with greenish tinge and
polychrome decoration beneath transparent lead-
based glaze; curving sides rise up from short foot-
ring through to slightly everted rim; bowl entirely
occupied by standing figure with arms
perpendicular to body; long black tresses, green
tunic and highly stylised features, surrounded by
vines and flowers; rim with bold pseudo Kufic
inscription animated by fauna; glaze to exterior bar
exposed footring. Repaired from 4 fragments only
with clean breaks.
At the time this piece was produced in 10th century,
Nishapur – a cultural, commercial and intellectual
centre – had reached the height of its prosperity.
Capital of the ancient historical region known as
Khurasan and trading stop on commercial routes
from Transoxiana and China, Iraq and Egypt.
Under Abbasid helm – ACE 750-1258 - the vast
Islamic Empire stretched from Spain to the borders
of India, through Persia and the Middle East and
along the coast of North Africa. Dominion however,
was nominal and great power transfers defined the
political vista lending to cultural multiplicity, great
diversity and regional variation in the arts.
The use of a ground slip to cover the colour of the
clay, for example, was developed in and restricted to
Iran and parts of Central Asia in 10th-11th
centuries. Nishapur was one of the main centres of
high-class ceramic production.
This piece can be further classified as an example of
Nishapuri buff wares, a distinct group of wares
unique to the region of Khurasan. They are
characterised by the application of a fine ground
slip and green and yellow – sometimes redbrick –
decorative scheme outlined in purplish-black.
Decoration may be either inanimate or animate. The
latter are scarce and human depictions a rarity in
the Islamic world but play a prominent role in
Nishapur polychrome wares.
This piece joins a small group of wares of
particularly strong interest as nothing similar has
been found anywhere else. They are like nothing
that came before or would follow. The Seljuks in
11th century are known for figural representation
but the physiognomy is quite different.
Figural decoration would seem at odds with the
iconoclastic strictures of Islam, however, the few
extant examples do denote that the tradition was
not completely unknown. An unglazed jar in the
museum of Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, with detailed
painting in slip of a court scene dating to the
Sassanian period, suggests both a prototype and
existence of a pre-Islamic tradition later
appropriated by Islamic artisans.
The face in three-quarter profile is depicted in a
similar convention to those of the Abbasid lustres of
the same period. Sassanian models? A cultural
memory could have preserved certain elements and
there are indeed similarities with Sassanian silver
dishes. The imagery on these bowls is thought to
have derived from Sassanian metalwork.
Two factors propel this bowl into an artistic class
quite distinct from contemporaneous earthenwares
but in Iran and empire at large. Not only does it
herald from one of the main centres of high-class
slipware production but also the human depiction is
a great rarity.
Humble material yet decoration propels bowl into a
higher artistic class. Human figures are a great rarity
and to find an example in such good condition is
rather exceptional. Abstract designs also common.
The reduction of the forms, both vegetal and
human, displays a strong tendency for abstraction
during this time.
The bowl would have been thrown and turned on
the wheel then fired before a white slip applied to
mask the colour of the surface material. The
decoration would then have been added before a
transparent glaze applied.
Influence across a vast area. The shape has been
borrowed from Chinese wares.
For other figurative examples cf., "Bowl with a figure
and birds [Attributed to Iran, Nishapur]" (38.40.290)
can be see at Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New
York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
art/38.40.290. (July 2011); Ceramics from Islamic
Lands. Oliver Watson (New York: Thames & Hudson,
2004) P. 248 Cat.H.1