In Search of “the Abbasid Court”
Attentive readers of Crow Collection bulletins will notice a coming attraction in the fall, an exhibition entitled: “Clay Between Two Seas: From the Abbasid Court to Puebla de los Angeles.”
Your humble Curator Emeritus has had the pleasure of an introduction to Puebla de los Angeles. It is a beautiful town in Mexico with much of its Spanish colonial architecture still in tact, about an hour and a half drive southeast of Mexico City. It is also the source of the quintessentially Mexican ceramic: Talavera de Puebla de los Angeles that will be the focus of the upcoming exhibition.
I remain, however, quite ignorant of the “Abbasid Court,” and frankly most of what can be seen as West Asia, other than the fact eloquently argued by the curator of Clay Between Two Seas,” Dr. Farzaneh Pirouz, that it had encouraged potters to emulate the fine white glazes of Tang dynasty Chinese ceramics and come up with something comparable at less cost. Abbasid potters, she has written, working in the capital city at Baghdad in the 9th century, had responded with a glaze that produced an opaque white color, quite obscuring even red or strong grey ceramic bodies, made from the local clays. By adding
tin oxide to a standard lead-oxide glaze formula, Abbasid potters could produce a creamy white surface, as suitable as was paper for embellishment with color, particularly the prized cobalt blue, over which they held a monopoly, and for which Chinese potters paid dearly in trades along the Silk Road. The opaque white-coated tin-glazed wares passed for the fine white Chinese stoneware ceramics available from late Tang China and thereafter. Chinese potters used combinations of clays that fired white or slightly off-white, and covered them with clear translucent glazes, even before the focused production of pure porcelain, which was very white, and so vitrified (made glass-like) that it could be thinly potted.
So, it was with some interest that I took note of a major exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in my home city of New York, and walked through the summer leafing in Central Park to see “Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs Centuries.” So the Seljuqs were from Turkmenistan, and not Arab, or even Persians: still it was they who had swooped in from pasturelands to the northeast and ousted the Abbasids to rule over a large part of West Asia from the 11th to the 13th century. I figured I could see what they inherited in terms of ceramics, and kind of go backward from there. A girl has to start somewhere.
I was well rewarded. There were tin-glazed white wares and even revelation of yet another ceramic technology in the second half of the 11th century -the invention of stonepaste. “Finely ground quartz, mixed with small amounts of liquefied glass and refined clay” said the wall panel, and it was quickly adopted for high-class wares to replace the strongly colored clays, which limited the visibility of decoration. (Still no real competitor for porcelain, though; no ceramic walls were very thin.)
Newly invested in the arts of the Islamic world, I decided to forsake some quarters of “Court and Cosmos” and head for the Met’s amply filled, “Islamic “Galleries, in search of my true prey: veritable Abbasid tin-glazed wares: examples of the technology that showed up centuries later in the New World in Talavera de los Angeles.
NEXT EPISODE: Abbasid wares in the Galleries for the “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,” formerly known as the “Islamic Galleries.”
Footnote publication of Farzi’s book. Catalogue for Court and Cosmos.