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Safavid Ceramics and Tiles

The complex history of Safavid ceramics is due in part to the geographical position of Persia, placed as it was between the Ottoman Empire, the lands of Uzbek rulers, the Mughal empire and the Indian Ocean. The Safavid dynasty ruled over Persia (1501-1722) for over two centuries, with the first century proving to be a challenging time on all borders with intense military disruption on the Ottoman frontier.

Dish with stylized vegetal decoration. Iran, Kirman (?), second half of the 17th century  Stonepaste, underglaze painted and colored slip decoration H. 8.2 cm; Max. Diam. 47 cm; Base Diam. 27 cm.

Dish with stylized vegetal decoration. Iran, Kirman (?), second half of the 17th century Stonepaste, underglaze painted and colored slip decoration H. 8.2 cm; Max. Diam. 47 cm; Base Diam. 27 cm. The decoration of this dish is organized in concentric registers. The decoration of the narrow flange, the middle register and the central medallion consists of a leaf scroll painted in underglaze cobalt blue. The middle register and the central medallion also display large flowers bearing thin petals. The remaining registers are adorned with an equally dense stylized vegetal decoration, painted in sage green and ocher slips. A series of ten cartouches painted in black slip and incised with four spirals decorate the well. We have here, relatively late in the seventeenth century, an example of a technical process that was very common in the second half of the fifteenth century. The outside is simply decorated with two delicate and graceful lotus-stems displaying a floral element seen in profile. There are three tassel pseudo-marks on the base. The dating of this new type of underglaze polychrome decoration thus becomes clearer. The last years of the prosperous reign of Shâh Abbâs II (1642-1666) would seem to be the most likely period.

Collectors in the earlier part of the nineteenth century tended to confuse Iznik and Iranian productions. Later travelers and collectors drew a distinction between Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran, and after World War I both collectors and historians concentrated on the long history of Iranian ceramics through the study of archaeological finds from the bronze age up to the thirteenth century when Rayy succumbed to the Mongols in 1220. Even before World War II Arthur Upham Pope in his important Survey of Persian art was mostly concerned with the early Islamic period reaching as far as the fifteenth century, the Timurid century.

A few recent studies have shed some light on Safavid ceramics through petrography, the study of the body fabric, and through the publication of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Safavid blue and white ceramics. A number of buildings with tile revetments such as the tomb of Harun-i Vilayat in Isfahan (1512) and a few dated pieces have provided some help towards a tentative chronology. Without archaeological studies, to this day it has not been possible to provide specific locations of production, yet Safavid potteries can be assigned to certain areas in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Khurasan, Fars, Kirman and presumably around Isfahan.

Whereas a certain unity of style prevailed in ceramics across Timurid lands of the fifteenth century, this was no longer the case in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman court imposed a new style of decoration based on preliminary drawings. In the sixteenth century the shifting of capitals away from Ottoman borders could not have be conducive to the creation of a specific style of decoration. Only the same crackled glaze, three spur marks in the center and free hand painting, appear to unite the production of the so-called Kubachi wares, likely to have been produced in the area of Tabriz. The Timurid style survived for a few decades on large blue and white dishes; they recall the bold flower motifs drawn from Chinese export wares of the Yongle period (1403-1424) until echoes of Iznik designs such as groups of flowers on a pale blue or light beige ground are visible on a few dishes as well as a type of saz leaf used as a repeat.

Some tiles must have been made for the Safavid buildings in Qasvin in the middle of the sixteenth century. Later and well into the reign of Shah ‘Abbas I, further dishes and tiles respond more closely to the court style in manuscripts, as busts of courtiers and even foreigners decorate them. Yet the influx of Wanli (1573-1620) Kraak export porcelain also imposed its designs of panels round the wall, and birds in the center of dishes, both in blue and white and polychrome.

All of a sudden it seems, the entire sixteenth century type of ceramic decoration disappears towards the end of the rule of Shah ‘Abbas I and potteries start responding with great gusto to the arrival of an increasing quantity of Kraak wares on the Persian market with the result that the quality of the white stonepaste and its glaze improved dramatically. The most likely reason for this radical change would be the appearance on the scene of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, the new international purveyors in bulk of Chinese export wares. Whereas the sixteenth century Iznik production had in no time abandoned Chinese designs, the Persian potter, in his renewed efforts to compete with Chinese wares, made good use of seventeenth century and earlier Chinese models, with his usual freehand approach in adapting original Far Eastern patterns.

At the change of dynasty in China and after the middle of the seventeenth century, new Qing patterns were perceived in Persia throughout the applied arts, when Chinese monochrome glazes influenced yellow, white, green and blue, molded or incised shapes of Persian bottles, bowls and dishes. Some white bowls were carved with “rice pattern” ornaments following the Chinese manner. This is done by cutting the kernel-shaped hole with a small flexible steel lancet. By contrast a group of large dishes strikes a note of elegance which recalls Mughal patterns on jade and encrusted metalwork, as well as earlier Chinese models.

A further new style of decoration, coming closer to textile repeats of flower sprays, included the introduction of pale red, yellow and some green colors alternating with blue patterns on the usual white ground for dishes, qalyans and flattened bottles. Yet a most striking group of bottles, bowls, small cups and jugs, brought to the last half-century of the Safavid dynasty an original touch which owes nothing to Chinese export wares. It is a large series of luster painted pieces where the luster is applied overglaze either on a white or blue glazed ground. These may alternate on one piece, usually a long neck bottle. Most of the decoration relates to the motifs on the golden borders for manuscript paintings. It is the world of peacocks, gazelles, flowers recalling poppies or lotuses, and river banks with trees.

Safavid tiles in Persian architecture remained closer to traditional designs than the variety of ceramic patterns and shapes already described. The tile mosaic tradition is thus carried on from the time of the Aqqoyunlu Blue Mosque (1465) in Tabriz. Yet by the seventeenth century the use of whole tiles has become the faster way of decorating the surfaces of larger public and religious buildings, especially in the new capital of Isfahan, although in Kerman the architectural complex built by its governor Ganj Ali Khan around 1600 was still in part decorated with tile mosaic. Whereas the cuerda seca technique was soon to be discarded by the Ottoman potters in the sixteenth century, this technique held good in Persia throughout the seventeenth and early into the eighteenth century. The numerous religious and formal buildings on both sides of the Zayendeh Rud, the river of Isfahan, were decorated with polychrome tiles, with yellow being used more and more besides blues of several shades, browns and sage green.

One may well ask what happened to Persian ceramics after the fall of the Safavid dynasty. Later potters may have attempted to imitate Chinese peacock feather or robin’s egg glazes of the Qianlong rule, yet two important discoveries took place in Europe in the eighteenth century which curtailed the production of traditional ceramic shapes. In the first place kaolin, one of the two components of porcelain, was discovered in Saxony during the rule of the king Augustus the Strong. In the second place, transfer printing was invented in England by John Sadler in 1755. Specialized painters were no longer required to decorate ceramics, and these cheaper goods could then compete favorably with local Persian production.
Nevertheless under the rule of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz, elegant tile panels in the style of Famille rose were designed for private houses, madrasas and the Vakil Mosque in 1766. The tile tradition was carried into the Qajar era. Without any doubt and to conclude, Persian ceramics under Safavid rule reached a degree of excellence which was never surpassed in the land of Hafiz and Saadi.

Bottle with landscape decoration Iran, late 17th to early 18th century Stonepaste, painted decoration under a transparent, colorless glaze. :;

Bottle with landscape decoration Iran, late 17th to early 18th century Stonepaste, painted decoration under a transparent, colorless glaze. :; This bottle still has its original, typically Iranian appearance – a pear-shaped body and a long neck. It is decorated with a landscape painted in light blue against a white ground, with the outline of the drawing painted in a slightly darker blue. A cypress motif entwined in the branches of a flowering tree is displayed four times on the body, separated each time by a flowering stem emerging from the ground-line, which in turn is symbolized by a series of small arcades. There is a band of stylized medallions at the base of the neck, which is adorned with a number of floating knots in the Chinese style. A narrow band of small leaves, simplified in the extreme, and framed by borders, highlights the lip. The iconography is taken from an important Iranian cultural theme. The cypress entwined with a flowering branch is a love metaphor, frequently encountered in Persian poetry and the arts of the book. The cypress tree evokes the supple but vigorous figure of a young man – and sometimes that of a young woman – and is always a synonym for beauty. The flowering branch which delicately enlaces the cypress requires no comment. This graceful, refined theme is frequently encountered in Safavid art. It appeared early in the arts of the book and in textiles. In the field of ceramics, where the theme seems to have emerged later, as attested by this bottle which can be dated to the end of the seventeenth century.

Dish with rosette design Iran, Kirman (?), mid to late 17th century Stonepaste with incised design through a blue ground under a transparent, colorless glaze Diam. 42 cm; H. 7.5 cm Musée du Louvre, Musée des Arts décoratifs deposit, gift of R. Koechlin, 1905 Ucad 11945. ::

Dish with rosette design Iran, Kirman (?), mid to late 17th century Stonepaste with incised design through a blue ground under a transparent, colorless glaze Diam. 42 cm; H. 7.5 cm Musée du Louvre, Musée des Arts décoratifs deposit, gift of R. Koechlin, 1905 Ucad 11945. :: The use of the champlevé technique, in which the motif is carved and literally inscribed into the material, gives life and depth to the decoration. The drawn out rumi palmettes can be compared with the style used by the naqqashkhane, but the composition and the floating effect which is so striking here, have, as far as we know, no equivalent. The dish is decorated with a six-lobed circle, which seemingly quivers under the effect of small wave-forms (two on each lobe except for one which has three) and little pointed white shapes which draw the design outwards. The circle floats impalpably on a medium blue background. Little waves with delicate white stems, each bearing a two-lobed leaf, seem to dance away from the centre in a sinuous line to form a rosette which remains open in its center. The balance between the underlying geometric composition and the palpitating lightness of the vegetal decoration reaches a peak of excellence. The perfectly smooth shape of the dish acts as a foil to the motif; the absence of any relief means that the light can glide over the glaze, conferring an almost ethereal quality to the dish. This masterpiece is one of a small production of ceramics with the decoration incised through the blue slip under a brilliant transparent glaze. None of the pieces are dated, but they resemble a type of more elementary substitute painted in white slip over the colored ground under a transparent glaze. These pieces are attributed to the reign of the Safavid sovereign Shâh Abbâs II. (1642-1666) and it can be assumed that these ceramics with an incised decoration are more or less of the same period.

Flask with music scene Iran, c. 1640-1665 Stonepaste, with molded decoration under a colored glaze H. 22.5 cm; W. 9.8 cm Musée du Louvre, gift of Louis Hugot, 1924 OA 7780.

Flask with music scene Iran, c. 1640-1665 Stonepaste, with molded decoration under a colored glaze H. 22.5 cm; W. 9.8 cm Musée du Louvre, gift of Louis Hugot, 1924 OA 7780. :: This flask is one of a number of bottles with a flat face and trefoil sides constituting the most common category of pieces in a series of ceramics with a molded decoration – a series which possibly originated during the reign of Shâh Abbâs and developed under his successors. The Louvre flask originally had a short tubular neck. The trefoil sides display imbricated trilobed flower motifs, a design frequently employed in the ornamentation of metal and ceramic vessels as well as in the borders of carpets and ceramic architectural decoration, and on other media. On one side of the flask a young woman is shown kneeling; she raises one knee very slightly, presses her cheek against the edge of the tambourine, and seems to be listening to the delicate vibration of the instrument beneath her fingers. Her loose belt accentuates the roundness of her body, a type of beauty that became fashionable during the reign of Shâh Abbâs I. Flowers form a fanciful crown around her. The other side of the flask is decorated with a young woman dancing to the sound of music. An elegant young man, who appears to be about to raise a cup to his lips, sits on his heels and watches her. Like a symbol of eternal spring, a flowering tree bends its branches over the couple. These images, which bring together wine, dancing and music, have long been classified as leisure themes. However, this assumption should perhaps be questioned, for the instruments being played here do not evoke profane music: the daf and the ney or reed flute are associated with mystical music. The theme of wine is frequent in Iranian poetry, an art form which deals on an implicit level with spirituality.

Bottle with vegetal decoration Iran, second half of the 17th century Stonepaste, luster decoration over a transparent colored glaze H. 27.5 cm; Max. Diam. 14.5 cm; Base Diam. 8.7 cm Musée du Louvre, Musée des Arts décoratifs deposit, acquired 1894 Ucad 8061. ::

Bottle with vegetal decoration Iran, second half of the 17th century Stonepaste, luster decoration over a transparent colored glaze H. 27.5 cm; Max. Diam. 14.5 cm; Base Diam. 8.7 cm Musée du Louvre, Musée des Arts décoratifs deposit, acquired 1894 Ucad 8061. :: During the seventeenth century it is not rare to find objects with a luster decoration over a colored glaze – especially a transparent, cobalt blue glaze. This piece is characterized by a vegetal decoration which spreads out freely over the brilliant glaze. Its subtly curved godrooned body enhances the iridescent reflections of the decoration, which is exclusively vegetal and organized around the motif of a willow. On this bottle the willow is particularly stylized, a feature that recalls seventeenth century Safavid miniatures, especially those created in the ateliers of Isfahan.

Bottle with a landscape Iran, second half of the 17th century Stonepaste, luster decoration over colored and colorless transparent glazes; stopper: metal with engraved and repoussé decoration, cornelian cabochon H. 27 cm; Body Diam. 16.5 cm; Base Diam. 10 cm Musée du Louvre, gift of Mme Octave Homberg, 1907 OA 6122. ::

Bottle with a landscape Iran, second half of the 17th century Stonepaste, luster decoration over colored and colorless transparent glazes; stopper: metal with engraved and repoussé decoration, cornelian cabochon H. 27 cm; Body Diam. 16.5 cm; Base Diam. 10 cm Musée du Louvre, gift of Mme Octave Homberg, 1907 OA 6122. :: This type of pear-shaped bottle with a tapering neck is often represented in Safavid miniatures. The shape of the body, divided into six beveled panels, distantly echoes – in ceramics – that of metal pieces produced in India during the Mughal period. The vegetal decoration on Safavid lusterware displays a certain stylistic unity: the vegetal repertoire features flowering tufts of a rather indeterminate nature alongside irises, carnations and sometimes trees. It is highly probable that the emergence of naturalistic floral motifs on these ceramics was due to the influence of Mughal textile designs.

Panel with confronted peacocks Iran, mid 16th century, first third of the17th century Stonepaste mosaic under colored and opaque glazes H. 77 cm; L. 1.10 m Musée du Louvre, gift of Mme Pierre Chadourne, 1995 MAO 1189. ::

Panel with confronted peacocks Iran, mid 16th century, first third of the17th century Stonepaste mosaic under colored and opaque glazes H. 77 cm; L. 1.10 m Musée du Louvre, gift of Mme Pierre Chadourne, 1995 MAO 1189. :: The decoration on this panel consists of two confronted peacocks. They are painted against an intense black ground and placed on either side of a vase containing tall stems which bend under the weight of dog-rose and “Herati” type flowers, reminiscent of those habitually depicted in seventeenth century carpet designs. The vase rests on a stylized element which vaguely resembles a kashkul or vegetal basket. The colors used for the floral and animal motifs are pastel – white and different nuances of orange ocher. This iconographic theme had already been exploited in the decoration of the tile mosaic of the Kirman Friday Mosque, a building that was restored and redecorated in about 957 H/ 1550. This decoration was executed by an artist from Isfahan: Hâjjî Beg ‘Inâyat Allâh ibn Nizâm ad-Dîn. The iconographic motif of the peacock appeared very early on in Islamic art. In classical Iranian poetry – particularly in the works of the great poets Rudaki and Attar – it usually seems to be associated with the sun. It became by extension a theme linked with royalty.

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About the Author
The Louvre opened to the public in 1793 and has eight thematic galleries with over 35,000 pieces of art work. The art collection in these galleries dates from the ancient times till the modern period. Some of the permanent collections include masterpieces by Da Vinci, Delacroix, Vermeer and Rubens. There is an Islamic arts collection at the museum. This gallery has a wonderful collection of ceramics, glass, wood, metalware, ivory, carpet, textiles, and miniatures.
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