Persian pottery: A masterpiece of pottery art

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Verica Sitnik
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Persian pottery as a craft has very long history, which goes back to the 7th millennium BC. Throughout the centuries, since the early Neolithic Age, functional potteryware has been created in various forms all around the world, made and designed by many cultures. One of the oldest is Persian pottery, made by the artists of Persia (Iran). Persian potters developed their work to perfection, they responded to cultural changes and adopted many new designs as part of their own style.

Evidence of painted-pottery in Susa, which was a Sumerian cultural center during the Uruk period, has been dated to circa 5000 BC. Ceramic vessels that were probably placed as offerings to the dead have been found in over a thousand graves located near the temple. The vessels found hold clues about the organization of the society and the civilization that was settled in Susa 6000 years ago. Two thousand pots have been recovered from the cemetery, every single piece of them representing the technical achievements of their makers.

Pottery Vessel, Fourth Millennium BC. Author: Zereshk.CC BY-SA 3.0

A large number of the Susa funerary items are on display in the Louvre. One such vessel is the Bushel with ibex motifs, which is a very famous piece of pottery artwork, probably made between 4200 and 3500 BC. This large pot (11 x 6.5 inches) is identified as an example of the animal style, which is a style of decoration attributed to warrior-herdsmen that developed from the early iron age.

The Bushel with ibex motifs (a mountain goat native to the mountain ranges close to Susa) is made of painted terracotta. Its upper section depicts long-necked birds, thought to be wading waterfowl. The next section is decorated with hunting dogs which are typical for this region, and below these dogs are the ibex. Most notable thing about the piece is that the ibex are portrayed in a non-naturalistic way, like triangles. The beaker is currently located in the Louvre Museum, and it was found during an excavation of Susa (1906–1908) led by Jacques de Morgan.

Bushel ibex Louvre thought to have been made between 4200 and 3500 BCE.

Many of the vessels that were dug out of the graves are separated into three types of pots, and all of them are connected to serving food. There is a serving dish, a drinking goblet or beaker, and a small jar. Other items found include simpler cooking pots and jars. This implies that there was a belief for life in the afterworld in which these items would be necessary. The ceramics are carefully made and painted by hand.

Lustreware bowl produced in Susa, 9th century.

Epigraphic pottery developed in Persia in the early Islamic period. The pieces that were produced during this period usually are earthenware vessels decorated in Kufi text, the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts, with letters painted using black slip on a base of white. These vessels were mostly produced in Samarqand and Nishapur.

Bowl with hunting motif from the tale of the 5th-century king Bahram Gur and Azadeh.

The production of enameled minai ware is one of the innovations in the pottery during this period. Use of fritware was also adopted, a type of ceramic molded from a silicon-based paste made by adding ground quartz or glass to the clay, which gave a pleasing luster finish. These pieces were further embellished with intricate designs of hammered metal.

Persian Pottery from Isfahan, from the 17th century located at the Royal Ontario Museum. Autor: PersianDutchNetwork. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dating of ceramics during the Safavid period is challenging because few pieces are marked with the place of production, although locations of workshops have been identified. Chinese porcelain was much more valued than the local productions during this period and so silicon based Lusterware was revived, as the strong white finish, when glazed, made a good imitation of Chinese porcelain.

Plate with two pomegranates,v. 1500, the Louvre.

In general, decorative designs also tended to imitate those of Chinese ceramics. Blue and white pieces were commonly decorated with dragons and other Chinese motifs during this period. However, Persian Blue porcelain is not a complete imitation of the Chinese Blue. An entirely different type of design can be noticed in specific pieces of pottery, which carries iconography such as Islamic Zodiac or arabesque decorations. In 1659 the Chinese market was closed, and Persian ceramics came to its glory. The Persian pottery soared to new heights on the market in Europe. Today large collections of Persian pottery can be seen in the British Museum and Royal Ontario Museum.