Islamic Pottery: Lusterware

The expression "Islamic art" is a term used to describe visual arts, created by Muslim and non-Muslim artists after the 7th century, who lived in the regions occupied by Muslims and cultures of Islam. Examples of Islamic art can be seen in forms such as architecture, architectural decoration, ceramic art, lusterware, faience mosaics, relief sculpture, wood and ivory carving, friezes, drawing, painting, calligraphy, book-gilding, manuscript illumination, lacquer-painted bookbinding, textile design, metalworking, goldsmithing, and gemstone carving. Historically, Islamic art has developed from a variety of different sources and influences from Ancient Greek and Chinese traditions combined with the Middle Eastern cultures of Egypt, Byzantium, and ancient Persia.

A distinct Islam inspired style in ceramics was not definitely established until the 9th century in Iraq, then further developed in Turkey, Syria and Iran. One of the first and great innovations of early Muslim potters was lustre painting. Lusterware grew out of an existing ceramic technology in Iraq, but its earliest form was clearly influenced by Tang dynasty potters from China, probably through the vast trade network called the Silk Road.

The origins of the lusterware technique are undecided. Some say it derived from Egypt, where it was used to decorate glass during the first two centuries of Islam, and influenced the work of local potters in the 9th century. Information on earlier periods is very incomplete due to the lack of surviving archaeological samples in good condition. What is known for certain is that the potters who centred around the Abbasid court in Baghdad created lusterware that was exported to all corners of the Islamic domain. Also, calligraphic decorations first began to appear on pottery during this period. The invention of lusterware technique was unique to Baghdad potters and ceramicists.

Lusterware is a ceramic decorative technique using mainly white tin-glaze and then painting on the surface of the glaze with a metallic pigment or lustre. The process involves using a lead-based glaze and silver and copper paint to create a golden shine on a pot that contains no gold. Lusterware is a type of pottery or porcelain that has a shimmering metallic glaze.

The method involved the use of sulphur compounded with metallic oxides then mixed with an earthy material such as red or yellow ochre. This mixture was used to decorate the surface of a glazed pottery object already fired once. The vessel was then lightly fired for a second time in a reducing kiln, with little air, much smoke and no clear flame. When the surface residue from the firing was rubbed away, the metallic elements remained on the surface of the glaze in a glittering film not noticeable to the touch.

Recent research on Lusterware tells us that golden metallic shine occurred when there are dense nanoparticulated layers of tin glaze, several hundred manometers thick, which enhance and broaden the reflectivity of the pigment. In other words, the glaze helps in shifting the colour of the reflected light from blue to green-yellow which is called a redshift.

These shifts are only achieved with a high lead content, which potters consciously increased over time from Abassid (9th-10th centuries) to Fatimid (11th-12th centuries) luster productions. The addition of lead reduces the diffusivity of copper and silver in the glazes and helps the develoment of thinner luster layers with a high volume of nanoparticles. Although the Islamic potters of that time may not have known about nanoparticles, they had tight control of their processes, refining their experimentation by tweaking the recipe and production steps to achieve the best reflecting golden shine.

Wherever Lusterware originated, the technique was valued by many generations of Islamic potters. The Abbasid artisans used it to make simple earthenware sparkle like yellow gold, and highlight to with lustre details in their designs that where often painted in blue, green or purple.

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