All we know about the production of lustre ceramics under the Fatimids is what the vessels themselves tell us: there is no convenient treatise as there is for Kashan in Abu'l-Qasim's description of the industry, and no mentions in the literary sources which we rely on for the Fatimid period in Egypt. The problem is the same for the production of other works of art in this period, as the turbulent political events which finally brought about the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171 ensured the destruction of much of the evidence: for example, the dispersal of the Fatimid Treasury in 1061-9 has left us piecing together from modern day museum collections and church treasuries likely candidates for a place on the Treasury shelves. [See introductory sections on the Fatimid Treasury, A.5.-A.8.].
Furthermore, the study of Fatimid lustre has been somewhat neglected over the course of the development of Islamic Art History as a field of scholarship, because of its low-esteemed aesthetic value in comparison with the products of Saljuq ateliers in Syria and Iran. The vast majority of examples of Egyptian lustre has come to us in the form of sherds from the excavated rubbish tips in the old potters quarter of Fustat, and comparatively few complete bowls are known; in contrast with many complete bowls which survive from less politically-unstable archaeological contexts, like Tell Minis or Kashan, these pieces did not tempt the buyers pocket - be he collector or Museum curator - over the last two centuries when Western museum collections were being put together.
It is this approach which has caused Egypt to be overlooked as a candidate for the place where the revolutionary new fabric known as stonepaste or fritware was developed: scholars have tended to favour Persia because of the glamorous vessels that were produced there using stonepaste bodies. However, as Oliver Watson points out, Iran provides no examples of experimental ceramic bodies, whereas the sherds turned up at Fustat show a whole range of bodies ranging from clay body all the way through to a fully-developed frit.
Thus in the absence of any useful alternative, we must interrogate the vessels themselves on issues such as: who made them? What were the potters inspirations and influences? Does this suggest where the potters may have come from? And does this answer how the technique emerged in Egypt as it was declining in Iraq? Who were they made for? When were they made?
A few introductory words should be said about dating. There is no inherent dating evidence for Fatimid lustre: in fact there are only two signed pieces from which we infer much of our chronology and analysis for this ceramic tradition.
|i.||Muslim and Ghaban|
The lustre-painted ceramic objects which remain from the Fatimid period are dated to the early C11th according to the floreat of one ceramicist, Muslim ibn al-Dahan (meaning "Son of the Painter"), who worked during the reign of al-Hakim (996-1021). We can only state this with any certainty because of a fragment, now in the Benaki Museum in Athens, which bears this inscription on the rim: "[The work of] Muslim ibn al-Dahan to please... Hasan Iqbal al-Hakimi". Though this patron cannot be identified with any specific individual, his epithet indicates he was a courtier of the caliph al-Hakim, and this provides a chronological context for Muslims uvre. Due to the interest created by an article written in 1968 by Marilyn Jenkins, some 60 signatures are now known on sherds (including a dozen near-complete bowls) demonstrating the diversity of the production in Muslims atelier. It is also possible to align with these signed vessels other fragments which are stylistically related to them, and postulate an iconographic repertoire.
The other vessel which is used as the starting point in the study of Fatimid lustre is a bowl in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, decorated with an elaborate palmette design, which bears the following inscription: "Power and thriving to the master of the masters, the Commander-in-Chief, Ghaban, the servant/client (mawla) of the Commander of the Faithful al-Hakim bi Amr-i-llah, may Allahs blessings rest upon him and upon his pure ancestors". This inscription is more helpful because the individual can be identified: as Marilyn Jenkins tells us, "Ghabans name first appeared in the histories of al-Hakims reign in 1010, and on November 9 1011 the title of Commander-in-Chief was bestowed on him by the Caliph. Ghaban died in November 1013 from punishments inflicted upon him at the order of al-Hakim". The Cairo bowl can thus be specifically dated to the period between 1011 and 1013 when Ghaban held this title.
However there are other pieces of evidence which are a bit more than circumstantial, which studies opening up in recent years have allowed us to learn more about the dating, distribution and value of Fatimid lustre. One of these is the Serše Limani shipwreck and the archaeologically interesting results which a closer look at its cargo has produced.
This wreck is important because it is a dateable time capsule. Coins of the Byzantine emperor Basil II (958-1025), and gold coins and glass coin weights of the Fatimid caliphs al-Hakim and al-Zahir were found, of which the latest were 3 weights dated to 1025. This allows us to pinpoint the date when the ship sank circa 1025.
From our point of view, the most important cargo that this ship was carrying is a number of glazed champlevÚ bowls, which have close iconographic and stylistic connections datable Egyptian lustre bowls (especially the Ghaban bowl) and it is thus possible to use these similarities to secure with more certainty than ever before the date of hitherto undateable lustre ware.
Marilyn Jenkins' 1992 article is an excellent discussion of the implications of the evidence which this shipwreck provides.
The other important circumstantial evidence is the intriguing phenomenon of bacini: these were ceramic bowls from all over Europe, but including many from Egypt and the Maghreb, built into the walls of Italian, especially Pisan, churches. In many cases the building of these churches and subsequent restorations when bacini may have been inserted can be very specifically dated, providing a very neat terminus ante quem for the dating of the ceramic pieces so inserted.
For example, the church of San Zeno was constructed in stages during the eleventh-century; the church of San Sisto was built between 1080 and 1130; and the church of Sant Andrea was built at the beginning of the twelfth-century. In Pisa, the bacini are predominantly lustre bowls, and some chemical analysis (see Mason's 1997 article) has revealed that three bowls (dated to the eleventh-century according to their host buildings) are comparable to Egyptian clay bodies. The pottery with which these Pisan churches are ornamented is of an orange-gold type, and we can infer that this pottery style was certainly being manufactured by the eleventh-century.
Some of the bacini vessels have similar decorative features to those "signed" with the word sad, "happiness", which may be a craftsman's signature or a workshop symbol. Such vessels have been found on the bell-tower of the Abbey in Pomposa, which is dated 1063-66. Another "sad" bowl depicting a human figure was found at San Sisto. This again implies an eleventh-century date for the introduction of the style of pottery which uses a pinkish-white sandy body or frit body, a thick transparent glaze, some opaque (blue or purple) glazes, similar to some examples found in Tell Minis (Syria), which are also thought to date circa 1100.
That ceramic pieces of all kinds, in many cases from the Islamic world, were thought somehow significant and valuable enough to adorn holy buildings of Christendom is also a very interesting question which remains to be addressed. Furthermore, it suggests interesting relationships between the Islamic world (in this case, Fatimid Egypt) and the Western Mediterranean: as we will see below, both Sicily and Spain were strongly influenced by Fatimid culture and developed their own lustre making traditions.
To read more on the bacini, see the book by Berti and Tongiorgi, I bacini ceramici medievale delle chiesi de Pisa (Rome 1981).
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