Bernard O’Kane

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Ceramics In or On the Building? The Relationships of Patrons, Architecture and the Consumer in the Development of Pottery and Tilework

Islamic tilework made a slow start, at least compared to Islamic pottery. Although some Abbasid luster tiles are known, it was not until the Seljuq period, and then only tentatively, that architectural tilework grew in popularity. How could tilework compete with the variegated colors of mina’i pottery? The eventual answer was with tile mosaic, a technique unique to architecture that had the advantage of initially firing each tile at the optimum temperature to achieve a rich glaze, and of maintaining perfect separation between colors. This technique was labor intensive and hence expensive, and therefore alternatives were sought. Little headway was made in 14th century Iran with underglaze-painted tiles, although these, despite the difficulties of preventing colors running under the glaze, did increase their colour palette slightly. The delicacy of mina’i made it unsuitable for tiles, but two other overglaze-painted styles used by potters, those called “cuerda seca” and “lajvardina” ware, were eventually developed and, once a way had been found to minimize the colors running together, became in late 14th-century Transoxiana a viable alternative to tile mosaic. Technological developments shifted in the 15th century to Anatolia, where the underglaze palette became broader, eventually resulting in some of Islamic art’s greatest creations, Iznik pottery and tiles. This paper will further discuss these shifts in technology and taste, exploring when, how and why the color palettes and motifs of architectural tilework were coupled with pottery workshops, and what happened when they were not.

BERNARD O’KANE is professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the American University in Cairo, where he has worked since 1980. Prior to that he was assistant director of the British Institute of Persian Studies, Tehran. He has also held visiting professorships at Harvard University and at the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include Timurid Architecture in Khurasan (Mazdâ Publishers/Undena Publications, 1987); Studies in Persian Art and Architecture (American University in Cairo Press, 1995); Early Persian Paintings: Kalila and Dimna Manuscripts of the late Fourteenth century (I.B. Tauris, 2003); The World of Islamic Art  ; as well as the edited volumes The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honor of Robert Hillenbrand and The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo (American University in Cairo Press, 2009).

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