Bowl with paired sphinxes and horsemen


  • Handbook text

    This vase is made of an artificial ceramic body known as stone-paste, or frit-ware. According to a member of a medieval Persian family of potters, Abu’l-Qasim Kashani, this ceramic body was made of ten parts of ground quartz, one part of ground glass frit, and one part of fine white clay. It was almost certainly developed as a medium for pottery in Islam as a way of imitating the white translucency of Chinese porcelain. Once introduced, probably in the eleventh century, it proved to be immensely popular, and is still used by some contemporary Iranian potteries. Stone-paste is difficult to throw, and the objects made of it were therefore usually moulded. As a result bowl forms tend to standardise.

    The eight sides of this bowl are decorated in succession with pairs of figures, either sphinxes or horsemen, of great antiquity in Iran. Sphinxes were used as symbols of good-luck in medieval Islam, and iconographically derive from the sphinxes which still adorn the carved stone remains of the great palace of Persepolis near Shiraz, founded by King Darius in the sixth century BC, and set on fire by Alexander the Great’s troops in 330 BC. The paired horsemen probably derive from a more than life-size carving which adorns the great rock face at Naqsh-i Rustam, near Persepolis. Dating from the third century AD, it shows Ahuramazda, God in the Zoroastrian tradition, handing the Sasanian King, Ardeshir I, the ring of investiture. Like Persepolis, Naqsh-i Rustam remained a centre of national mythology throughout Islamic times: both sites are alluded to in the literature, and were regularly visited by kings and commoners alike.

    Bibliographic references:
    J.W. Allan, Abu'l Qasim's treatise on ceramics, Iran Vol. 11 (1973) pp. 111-120.

    In: Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991)

Glossary of terms



Further reading

Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991), no. 7 on p. 16, illus. p. 17

Reference URL

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