C. Characteristics of Raqqa lustre


The recognised characteristics of Raqqa wares actually vary fairly widely. Alan Caiger-Smith notes that Raqqa wares are made from a coarse reddish-grey stonepaste covered with a white slip. Sauvaget noted that his sherds were of whitish earthenware fortified with frit, and the pieces in the Ashmolean’s collection are generally of buff-coloured stonepaste rather than grey, with no slip. There is agreement on the glaze, which is generally greenish-clear and in the case of underglaze-painted wares, often stained with copper, cobalt or manganese to give a turquoise, blue, or purplish-brown colour over slips and lighter clays. The glazes are often thickly applied and therefore are often crazed, a phenomenon mentioned above. Opaque tin-glazes were not used, and the transparent alkaline glaze usually has a greenish tinge, and is often iridescent due to decay. Although most glazes for lustrewares are clear or tinged green, peculiar to Raqqa are vessels glazed in a dark manganese purple, overpainted in gold lustre, but only a few of these exist. The lustre ranges from dark chocolate-brown to red-brown and silvery-grey. Changes in the colour of the underlying glaze or in the firing temperature will produce these variations.

Lustre-painted vessels from Raqqa are of the same shape and ware as ordinary Raqqa glazed-wares, and have the same glazes. The designs are similar to underglaze-painted vessels, and are often combined with blue and turquoise underglaze decoration. Common motifs are the spiral, the arabesque and the half-palmette, all of which Arthur Lane sees as developments from designs used in ‘Abbasid pottery. Interlace and geometrical forms, as well as mock lettering, are known devices. Also common are inscriptions with blessings and sometimes the name of the potter or of the patron. Decoration is seldom figural, although the few vessels that depict human figures copy the styles of Persian and Fatimid pottery.

A common decorative theme for the exterior of vessels, especially of the straight-sided, high-footed conical bowls so common to Raqqa pottery, is the band of large whorls or spirals, usually covering the top third of the body. There are a few variations on this, but most of the bands are remarkably similar (five of the vessels in the Ashmolean bear this common decoration). Tiny whorls are also commonly used as a textured background to contrast with designs in white. They are never carefully drawn, as in some of the later Iznik wares, but are sketched haphazardly around the field.

The lustreware from elsewhere in Syria, such as that supposed to be from Tell Minis or Ma’arrat Nu’man, seems to have developed a very different style from that of Raqqa. Tell Minis lustreware is often decorated with crescent moons, fishes and leaves, which, except for the last, are not to be found on Raqqa pottery. Although they both sometimes employ figural decoration, the Tell Minis depictions are against a white background with very little ornament around the central figure. Raqqan figural decoration is usually depicted against a backdrop of lustre whorls and vine-scrolls, an example of the reluctance to leave empty space (or "horror vacui") often discussed regarding Raqqa lustre style.

In general Tell Minis ware is of a finer grain than Raqqa ware (although there are two vessel bodies that come from this site, one considerably coarser than the other), and the glazes thicker and more prone to craze. The ordinary shapes and sometimes poor quality of Raqqa decoration point to ordinary- rather than court-consumption of this ware: ie. Raqqa lustreware is not a court-ware, as Raqqa had long since ceased to be the seat of government by the time this pottery was produced; rather it seems to have been the luxury ware of ordinary people.

Vessel shape is also an important identifying element. Especially common to (and probably exclusive to) both Raqqa and Persian pottery is the truncated conical bowl. The sides and rim are straight and it stands on a high foot (2-3cm tall). This form is found in Egyptian pottery and early Syrian, but usually with a short foot. Other forms common to Raqqa lustreware are jugs and medium-sized jars. Various other shapes are known, such as large and small dishes and stemmed cups, but they are not quite as abundant as the conical bowl. Raqqa potters never developed stonepaste bodies that were hard enough to form the delicate features of Persian vessels, thus the shapes remain simple.

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