ISLAMIC ART-Pottery and Textiles

Among the applied arts, ceramics is considered the most genuinely oriental. Here, the Muslim craftsmen showed true treasures of inventiveness. The history of the ceramics of Islam began in Mesopotamia, in Baghdad, during the ninth century while the Abbasid Caliphate court was located in Samarra (836-883) and is marked by the discovery of successive technical procedures that stimulated the development of varied styles, all of which showed not only an extraordinary domain of geometric ornamentation or calligraphy (that was in itself an element of great decorative effect), but also elegant paintings of figurative subjects or inspired by animal or plant stylizations. Some of these ceramic jars were very large.

Top row. Left: A Nishapur pottery bowl with a quadruped, Eastern Persia, 10th century. Middle: A large slip-painted pottery bowl from Samarkand, 9th Century. Right: Sgraffito splashware pottery bowl, Persia, 10th century.  Bottom row. Left: Mozarabe amphora, from the Caliphate of Cordoba, Spain. Middle: A Fatimid blue-ground lustre pottery jar, Egypt, 11th-12th century. Right: Manises dish with a bird, 1430-1450 AD, from Spain (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

The first invented varnish was lead oxide. It is a transparent and somewhat yellowish varnish which implies the need to use a white slip* so the pieces can be painted in a small number of shades (green and purple, or green, purple and red) before being varnished and baked in the oven. To this type of ceramics belong some of Mesopotamian origin and the Persian from Nishapur, in the Greater Khorasan (a historical region lying in northeast of Greater Persia, including part of Central Asia and Afghanistan), or those of Samarkand, in the Transoxiana (the ancient name used for the portion of Central Asia corresponding approximately with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwest Kazakhstan). To this modality also correspond Persian sgraffito* ceramics from the 12th century intended to imitate Chinese porcelains, and also the Caliph pottery of Cordoba with two-color paint (green and purple) and those with the same characteristics that were manufactured by the Moors of Teruel and Paterna (Valencia, Spain) from the end of the VIII century.

Shortly after the lead oxide varnish was found, the white and opaque tin-based varnish was invented, suitable for the use of a rich polychromy (including blue) that was applied to the piece by a second firing. This new type of varnish also allowed the application of decoration by metallic reflections obtained by the oxides of silver and copper. This is the famous golden pottery, which was used in Egypt (Fustat) since the second half of the tenth century under the Fatimid dynasty, and that since the late twelfth century was made in Mesopotamia (Rakka) and during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Persia (Ray or Rhages, Kashan and Sultanabad) and in Syria (Damascus). From the end of the 13th century, this golden decoration also appeared in the Hispano-Arabic gilded ceramics made in Malaga (Spain), an important ceramic center where, among other famous pieces, large jars were made with golden ornamentation, sometimes also applying blue paint, and whose manufacture can be traced to the Nasrid court of Granada. During the fourteenth century in Spain, this golden pottery from Malaga came to influence the development of the Manises ceramics in Valencia, which was widely disseminated throughout Europe, and that during the sixteenth century having lost much of its old Moorish style, spread to Barcelona from ​​where it later went to Reus, passing through Muel in Zaragoza, where its manufacture lasted until the moors were expelled from Spain.

Top left: Kashan minai pottery bottle vase, Persia, 13th century. Top middle: Albarello*, Syria, Damascus, 14th century. Bottom left: A Safavid pottery dish, Tabriz, North West Iran, 16th century. Bottom middle: Decorated pottery vessel from İznik (modern-day Turkey). Right: The famous Gazelle vase of the Alhambra of Granada, a master piece from the Nasrid period, XIIIth century (Museo de la Alhambra, Spain).

But, despite of this account, this summary of the ceramics of Islamic origin is not even close to be complete. It’s still necessary to mention a variety that, during the 12th and 13th centuries, was cultivated in Persia and that included figurative subjects made with a great pictorial delicacy and called minai (that is “enameled”), also the pottery painted in blue, or in blue and black, and made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Damascus, as well as the later Persian pottery that from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries tried to imitate the Chinese Ming porcelain with blue paint: those of Kubachi, Kirman and Meshed, or finally the portentous Turkish polychrome ceramics, made during the sixteenth century in Anatolia, in the old Nicaea (Iznik). And even to this long list should be added a brief comment about the Islamic tiles, which played such a brilliant role throughout the history of Muslim architecture, of which they were obliged and brilliant complement for their decoration.

Another glorious Islamic industry are textiles and carpets. Copts, Byzantines and Sassanian Persians were the masters of Arabs in the art of fabrics. Muslims added the great decorative element of their calligraphy. This decorative text often forms beautiful borders along the textiles. The kings of the Frankish dynasty of Jerusalem encouraged this industry in the lands they ruled. The caliphs of Egypt, the Arabs of Muslim Spain, all founded or protected textile factories which they called tiraz*. Arab historians, such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Maqqari, speak of Almería as the place where, in their time, the most beautiful fabrics were made in Spain. Jaén and Sevilla also produced large quantities of silk fabrics. Then the main Spanish Arab factories were established in Granada. The fabrics of Granada from the 15th century are still admirable due to the beauty of their color and their geometric interlaced.

Top left: Persian carpet with animal motifs, Safavid period, 16th century (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg). Bottom left: Textile with Moorish calligraphy writing from Granada. Right: A silk textile from Almeria (Spain).

While the looms of Egypt and Syria continued to produce fabrics with zoomorphic themes inscribed within the wheels of the Byzantine tradition, in the most western factories, that is, in Morocco and Spain, animal and plant forms almost disappeared replaced by geometric fleurons*.

Carpets were fabrics with more artistic significance than textiles because they are entirely hand made without the help of the loom. During the Middle Ages only Arab rugs were used in the western world. The same word for carpet in Spanish -like many words that begin with al- (“Alfombra” o “Alhombra”) is of Arabic origin (al-hanbal), originally the hanbal was a cover made of several pieces of skins forming a kind of floor mat. Also, the word baldachin, which is used to designate the carpet that covers a throne or altar, is derived from from the Italian “baldacchino”, from “Baldacco” (Baghdad), the place of origin of the original brocade*.

Each region in Persia and Central Asia -the countries that produced fine wool- specialized in a particular style of carpet, with peculiar drawings and typical coloration. A carpet from Bukhara is different, because of its color scheme and themes, from one of Samarkand, Tabriz or Ispahan. Still today, Persian carpets are highly valuable.

The Sanguszko carpet, from Kirmān, 16-17th century (Miho Museum, Kyoto, Japan).

In the Middle Ages, textiles and carpets were the main vehicle for the introduction of Muslim themes in the Latin West. Fabrics imported from Baghdad or Egypt were preferred to wrap holy bodies. To cover presbyteries and royal salons, there was nothing better than oriental rugs with griffins, lions, palm trees, even Koranic calligraphy. In these textiles and carpets, Christian artists found themes and inspiration, and in some countries that were partly Islamized such as Spain (with an important center of fabric production in Alcaraz), the Arab tradition lasted throughout the course of their history to the present day.


Albarello: (plural: albarelli). A type of maiolica (an Italian tin-glazed pottery dating from the Renaissance period) earthenware jar, originally a medicinal jar designed to hold apothecaries’ ointments and dry drugs. The development of this type of pharmacy jar had its roots in the Middle East during the time of the Islamic conquests.


Brocade: (from Italian broccato meaning “embossed cloth”). A class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads. Brocade is typically woven on a draw loom.

Fleuron: One of several types of flower-like ornament used in various areas of art and design, including as in architecture (as an architectural element) or in typography (as an ornamental typographical element).


Sgraffito: A technique either of wall decor, produced by applying layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colors to a moistened surface, or in pottery, by applying to an unfired ceramic body two successive layers of contrasting slip or glaze, and then in either case scratching so as to reveal parts of the underlying layer.


Slip: A liquid mixture or slurry of clay and/or other materials suspended in water. It has many uses in the production of pottery, and other ceramics ware. In pottery the two most important uses of slip are: firstly, to create the basic shape by slipcasting with molds, and secondly, to decorate the pottery.

Tiraz: (From the Persian word for “embroidery”). The term refers to medieval Islamic garments/armbands with inscription embroidered on them. They were given to officials as robes of honor to high-ranking officials who show loyalty to the Islamic empire. They were inscribed with the ruling caliph’s names, and were embroidered with threads of precious metal and decorated with complex patterns. Tiraz were a symbol of power, their productions and exports were strictly regulated, and was overseen by a government-appointed official.