Bowl with seated figureOn display
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Bowl with seated figure
Date10th century (AD 901 - 1000)
Abbasid Period (AD 750 - 1258)
Material and technique
earthenware, with painting in lustre over an opaque white glaze
Dimensions6.5 cm (height)
22.8 cm (diameter)
No. of items
Presented by Sir Alan Barlow, 1956.
Museum locationFirst floor | Gallery 31 | Islamic Middle East
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Lustre is perhaps the most important contribution of Islamic potters to the development of world ceramics. The lustre itself is a metallic sheen which was developed and used for its glittering effect, imitating precious metal. A pot was glazed and fired by the normal method; the design was then painted onto the cold glaze surface in a mixture of sulphur, silver oxide and copper oxide, plus red or yellow ochre, suspended in vinegar; the pot was fired a second time, on this occasion at a lower temperature and in a reducing kiln – a kiln with an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide, produced by damp fuel or a restricted air supply. The ochre was then gently rubbed away from the surface of the cooled pot, the decorative design remaining fixed to the glaze in the form of a metallic sheen. Such a sheen is imperceptible to the touch and generally speaking permanent, unless the pot is subsequently buried. In this case the salts in the earth may attack the surface of the object and the lustrous effect will disappear, leaving only a yellowish stain.
The lustre bowl illustrated has a number of interesting features. First of all the background of dots is a derivative of background punching on precious metal, showing the influence of the latter on the lustre tradition. Secondly, under the early Abbasid dynasty, in the ninth and tenth centuries, Iraq was flooded with Turks, imported from Central Asia to provide the mercenaries on which the Calliphs’ security depended. The seated figure on the bowl is nothing to do with Islam. On the contrary he is a Bodhisattva, a Buddhist religious figure, typical of eighth century wall-painting from Central Asia. There such figures often carry a flower in the right hand and a phurbu, a ceremonial dagger, in the left. Here, the flower has become highly stylised and the dagger has lost most of its blade. Likewise the peaked hat is impractical, but probably represents the Central Asia ushnisha. These features show that the artist did not understand the image he was copying. The word ‘amal (made by) in Arabic above the figure’s left shoulder shows that he was a local Arab: his name is probably hidden in the design of the bowl.
G. Fehérvári, Two early 'Abbasid lustre bowls, Oriental Art Vol. 9 no. 2 (1963) pp. 79-88.
In: Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991)
Glossary of terms
Ceramic material made of clay which is fired to a temperature of c.1000-1200⁰c. The resulting ceramic is non-vitreous and varies in colour from dark red to yellow.
Vitreous coating applied to the surface of a ceramic to make it impermeable or for decorative effect.
Metallic sheen obtained by applying a mixture of metallic oxides onto an already glazed ceramic that is refired at a reduced atmosphere.
Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991), no. 3 on p. 8, illus. p. 9
Allan, James W., Medieval Middle Eastern Pottery (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1971), pp. 12 & 14, illus. p. 13 pl. 8
Fehérvári, Géza, Islamic Pottery: A Comprehensive Study Based on the Barlow Collection (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), no. 19 on p. 46, pl. 11 b
Féhérvári, Geza, ‘Two Early 'Abbasid Lustre Bowls and the Influence of Central Asia’, Oriental Art, new ser., 9, (1963)
Ayers, John, and others, World ceramics: An Illustrated History, ed. Robert J. Charleston (London: Hamlyn, 1968), illus. p. 74 fig. 204