Islamic Lustreware

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The Islamic Historian Abu'l Qasim

Fatimid Lustreware - Sotheby's
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Technique Fatimid Lustreware - Sotheby's. Graeme Robertson / Getty Images

Origins and Techniques

Lustreware is a sophisticated decorative technique developed by Islamic potters beginning in the 8th century AD and used on pottery up until the last century. Ceramic vessels successfully treated with the lustre process radiate with a metallic shine. The Islamic potter and historian Abu'l Qasim described the effect about 1300, saying "That which has been evenly fired reflects like red gold and shines like the light of the sun."

Sources

This project is based on the research of Trinitat Pradell (Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya), Judit Molera (Universitat de Girona), Andy Smith (Daresbury Laboratory), and Michael S. Tite (RLAHA). Main sources are listed here.

An excellent source for further information about Islamic ceramics in general with much data on lustres is the Ashmolean Museum's Web-Based Teaching Course on Islamic Ceramics.

Abu'l Qasim bin Ali bin Muhammed bin Abu Tahir was a historian to the Mongol Court and a member of the Abu Tahir family of potters, one of a handful of Islamic families who controlled the manufacturing process of lusterware in the 12th and 13th centuries AD. In his book The Virtues of Jewels and the Delicacies of Perfume, Abu'l Qasim included a chapter on ceramics which revealed part of the recipe for lusterware, an exotic, highly arcane method of producing lustrous lights on pottery in amber, green, brown, yellow, red, and red-black colors.

But Abu'l Qasim's description only goes part of the way towards understanding the development of the ancient technique of lusterwares. The successful lusterware process involved painting precious metals--copper and silver--onto glazed vessels, producing a lustrous golden shine. After firing, the vivid colors of the glaze sparkled with blue and yellow iridescence. When the potters added lead to the glaze mixture, they produced a metallic shining effect with gold lights.

The aim of ​the transformation of lesser metals into gold is one of the hallmarks of medieval alchemy: the potters may have believed that the lustre process actually transformed silver and copper into gold. However, recent scientific study has demonstrated that the golden shine exhibited by silver lustres is a consequence of the nano-size of the metal silver particles which formed it.

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Lustreware Illustrated

Photos of Sherd 9th Century Lustreware Sherd Showing Lustre
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Technique These two images are of the same 9th century Abbasid sherd, shot under slightly different angles to illustrate the variability in reflection produced by lusterware potters. Trinitat Pradell (c) 2008

 

Lustreware is difficult to adequately describe, and even excellent photographs do not approach the visual thrill of the light playing across its surface. These are two photographs of the same small potsherd, an example of a 9th-century polychrome lusterware sherd that is tilted at slightly different angles. As you can see in the images, the light picks out the gold lustres along the green lines, so that the shimmering lights are reflected depending on which direction the light comes from. But the brown lustre splotches in the sherd does not show this effect.

The scholars involved in this research insist that it is best to see the lusterwares in person. The following is a list of museums which have collections of lusterwares which may be visited.

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Tang Dynasty Influences

Sancai Amphora - Tang Dynasty - Hong Kong Museum
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Sancai Amphora - Tang Dynasty - Hong Kong Museum. Claire Houck

 

The origins of any craft are myriad, and lustreware is no exception. Strong associations between Islamic lustrewares and Chinese ceramics have long been recognized by art historians. Trade, diplomacy, and warfare had traveled the Silk Road between the far and near east at least since the 2nd century BC.

A direct connection between Islamic and Chinese craftsmen was reported in historic records of the Tang dynasty in China. In 751 AD several Tang Dynasty craftsmen including one named Tou Houang were kidnapped from their workshops near Samarkand after the Battle of Talas. These men were brought to Baghdad where they were kept for eleven years, working closely with Abbasid craftsmen before they were released to return to China. It is also possible that Islamic potters moved (voluntarily or not) to China to work there--the only reason we know of Tou Houang at all is from his extant report to his government after he returned.

The Tang dynasty Sancai ceramic tradition illustrated in the photograph above is similar in style to early Islamic lustres, in that they are both vividly polychrome vessels on a white ceramic body. While the Sancai ceramic tradition was begun a century or two earlier than lustre, there are some comparable production techniques. The Tang produced cobalt-blue painted and glazed pottery, cobalt which had been imported from Iran. Tang colors were obtained by painting the vessels with cobalt oxides (blue), copper oxides (green), lead antimonate (yellow), iron oxides (red), and so on. A glaze was applied on top of the paint and then the vessel was fired to melt the glaze. The paint compounds dissolved into the glaze and produced the visible colors.

This process is similar to what was being accomplished in the Islamic Umayyad period prior to the Abbasid lustres. The colorfully glazed ceramics were produced beginning in the 7th century AD, and most probably in a clear connection with Chinese potters. However, these procedures are different from the lustre technique.

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Lustreware History

9th Century Lustreware Cup at the Louvre
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Small cup. Earthenware with polychromic lustre decoration painted over opaque glaze, 9th century. From Iraq. Louvre Museum, Accession OA 6700. Richelieu wing, Department of Islamic Art, room 2, case 5. Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

The earliest lustres were most likely made in Iraq during the reign of Harun al Rashid (AD 766-809, or AH 144-187 in the Islamic Calendar). The history of lustres suggests that until Abu'l Qasim published his book about 1300, the technique was a closely guarded secret of one family or guild of potters, who moved through the Islamic empire as the fortunes of the cities waxed and waned. The beginnings of this guild are found in the 8th century, near the towns of Baghdad and Basra in modern-day Iraq.

The oldest extant examples of lustre found today appear on decorative tiles and vessels found in Islamic royal courts, including the Abassid Caliph's palace in Samarra called Qasr al-Khalifa. Other early lustres have been found at the Mosque of Kerouian in Tunisia; the court of the Hammanid princess in Qal'a, Algeria; and in the court of Ahman ibn Tulun in Fustat, Egypt. These vessels were likely all created in Basra, and are mostly small bowls (12-16 centimeters wide), with turned-out rims. Other forms known from these buildings are a few larger bowls, flat dishes and tiles.

The earliest lustres were wildly multicolored, what art historians call polychrome. Each vessel or tile had between three to four colors: brown and amber; olive green; orange-yellow; and a red sometimes so dark as to appear to be black. The earliest designs were intricate tiny flowers, leaves, check patterns, wheels, beads, and a variety of foliage designs. These designs were drawn with a thin line of golden-amber and then filled in with panels of small-scale patterns. Although the lustre was variable in these pots and it is clear that the potters were wrestling with the technique, many pieces contain multiple effects in adjacent decorations, showing a strong, creative control.

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Lustreware Invention Process

Potter Yoanis Habib uses a pottery wheel in a workshop February 20, 2003 in A'ali, Bahrain.
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Potter Yoanis Habib uses a pottery wheel in a workshop February 20, 2003 in A'ali, Bahrain. A'ali is a traditional pottery village that features numerous workshops that have been selling their distinct crafts for hundreds of years. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

 

The invention of the lusterware process was a long one, and it probably began in the 8th century in Basra in what is now Iraq. There a handful of potters began experimenting with the new techniques learned in part from the Tang Dynasty craftsmen, and part from earlier glass coloring technologies. They first developed metallic paints, based on compounds of copper and silver in a suspension of water and perhaps vinegar, to produce a wide variety of colors and ​iridescent shines.

The Basra potters also attempted to emulate Tang Dynasty porcelains, by creating clay recipes that they hoped would produce the hard, bright-white porcelain vessel body. But they couldn't do it--porcelain requires kaolin clay not available in the near east. The closest the Basra potters could come was called Samarra body, a high-quality paste but of a creamy color. To mask the cream and provide a white canvas for their metallic paints, the Basra potters began experimenting with opaque glazes.

A ceramic glaze is, essentially, a thin layer of glass attached to the surface of a pot which provides both waterproofing and decorative shine. Making an opaque glass is one of the great secrets of the glass-making industry developed in the Levant about this time. The Basra potters first achieved an opaque glaze by under-firing an alkali-lime glaze, which creates a mass of tiny bubbles covering the vessel. Metallic paints on such a glaze produce a blue-yellow iridescence, but not the bright colors of the Tang pots. Another problem was the glazes cracked during firing because of differential thermal expansion rates of the clay body and the glaze layer. By the ninth century, the Basra potters had begun to add tin oxides to whiten the glaze and lead oxides to solve the cracking problem.

Metallic-based paints fired onto a leaded glaze were a revelation. The metals in the paint and the lead in the glaze work together during firing in an as-yet-not-understood process, creating a variety of colors and luminescences undreamed of by Tang potters.

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Making Lustreware

Traditional Pottery Making in Bahrain
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Potters prepare to close a kiln February 20, 2003 in A'ali, Bahrain. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

 

To make a classic lusterware pot, the potter began with a vessel of Samarra body and then glazed it with an alkaline glaze mixed with various amounts of lead oxide to avoid glaze cracking, and enhanced with particles of tin oxide to obtain a white opaque glaze. The glazed vessels were then fired.

After the pot had been fired and given time to cool, the potters painted the design on top of the glaze with a special lustre paint. Lustre paint was a finely ground mixture of clays and silver-copper metal compounds in a suspension of water, perhaps mixed with vinegar. Early recipes varied, with some using copper alone, some silver alone, and some a combination of silver and copper. The compounds were primarily oxides, but sulfides were an important ingredient, produced by using a sulfur-bearing compound such as cinnabar (mercury sulfide).

After the lustre pattern was painted onto the vessel, it was fired again, this time at about 500-600 degrees C, which is cooler than the first firing. This temperature is below the glaze's melting temperature, and much cooler than the firing temperature at which the ceramic body was made. When the lustre-painted vessel was heated at this temperature, the metal ions (copper and/or silver) within the lustre paint were 'absorbed' into the glaze by exchange with alkali ions (sodium and potassium) from the glaze itself. Following the ion exchange, the metal was reduced and became nucleated into metal nanoparticles. When the final process was complete, the remaining lustre paint was wiped away, and the resulting shine consisting of nano-sized particles of copper and/or silver embedded in the glaze is revealed.

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Chemical Processes Underlying Lustreware

Experimental Kiln at the Synchrotron Radiation Source
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Experimental Kiln at the Synchrotron Radiation Source. Trinitat Pradell (c) 2008

 

Chemical analysis of Islamic lustres in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum was completed by a team led by Trinitat Pradell while on sabbatical at the RLAHA. The work involved two steps: examining lustres using a combination of different scientific techniques, and the experimental recreation of lusterware. Tests included electron microprobe, micro-XRD, UV-vis diffuse reflectance and XANES and EXAFS. The recreation was completed using a suite of experimental tests of possible lustre recipes fired in the experimental kiln at Synchrotron Radiation Source.

The sulfur compound within the lustre paint provides a locally reducing (oxygen deficient) environment which allows the metal ions to shed oxygen. This process is further enabled by the introduction of a reducing atmosphere into the kiln. As the copper and silver ions are reduced to metal, they coalesce into nanoparticles. Silver reduces to metal more easily than copper ​and can nucleate into nanoparticles sooner than copper ones do. The type, size, and distribution of the nanoparticles within the paint is responsible for the color and metallic shining effect of the lustre. For example, a thin dense layer of small particles gives a cooperative effect which allows a metallic shine.

Getting the required effect requires precise control of a number of parameters in the kiln: the temperature, the firing time, and the gas mixes used for each step of the process. Additionally, the interaction between various components of the lustre paint and the glazes also affects the different stages of the process in different ways. For example, the presence of copper helps the reduction of silver. Better process control, or the use of other recipes, allows the same process to occur and produce the same end effect without the need for copper. And it is likely that it was this discovery that allowed the potters to shift from using mixed copper and silver to pure silver lustre paints.

The photograph on this page is of the experimental setup used to create lustre under laboratory conditions. Components include a temperature controlled furnace, remotely operated valves which allow the gas mix in the furnace (ie. micro-kiln) to be altered from a neutral atmosphere to a reducing one, a synchrotron light source, and a high count rate x-ray detector which collects the x-ray diffraction pattern.

 

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Islamic Saminid Period Plate - Late 9th-Early 10th C

Islamic Saminid Period Plate - Late 9th-Early 10th C
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Islamic Saminid Period Plate - Late 9th-Early 10th C. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation, Inc., 86.227.19

 

Before the development of lustreware, plain opaque white glazed wares were made throughout the Islamic world, strongly influenced by Chinese potters. Many shapes and decorative techniques used by the Abbasid potters during this period were meticulously copied from the Chinese. But, because kaolin clay was not available, 9th-century potters made vessels using the soft, cream-colored earthenware called Samarra body and covered it with an opaque white glaze.

This Samanid black-on-white epigraphic plate from Nishapur is one of several types of ceramic made by Islamic potters before (and after) the invention of lustreware. It is a plain white plate with a calligraphic design painted in brown and black and fired under a white transparent glaze. The calligraphy on Samanid black-on-white vessels is in the Kufic Arabic script, and often stylized to illegibility.

Charles Wilkinson conducted archaeological research at Nishapur, and discovered three large ceramic kilns and identified 12 styles of pottery made there. Nishapur was a major source of Samanid black-on-white epigraphic pottery for the Islamic world of the time.

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9th Century Abbasid Lustreware Ceramics

Polychrome Lustreware Cup - 9th century AD, Iraq
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Polychrome Lustreware Cup - 9th century AD, Iraq, from the collections of the British Museum. Trinitat Pradell (c) 2008

 

The earliest lustres made by Islamic potters were begun as early as the mid-8th century, during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (AD 766-809), grandson of caliph al-Mansur. al-Rashid's court was widely recognized as an important center of learning, and the place of legendary arts and sciences as reflected in the Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade. Many of the earliest lustres known today were recovered from the palace-complex at Samarra, begun in 836 and abandoned in 883.

Most of the serving vessels made for the Islamic courts of this period were made of gold, silver, bronze or glass. Pottery was still a novelty, and would only have been used in these courts if it were special indeed. Pottery used in al-Rashid's court was both glazed and interestingly colored but still its use was limited to serving wine and small delicacies. In his book, Lustre Pottery: Technique, tradition, and innovation in Islam and the Western World, Alan Caiger-Smith argues that the invention of the lustre decoration may have made pottery serving vessels of sufficient quality to be used in the courts.

This cup from the British Museum collections shows a polychrome brown, green and yellow pattern, and because it contains relatively low amounts of lead oxide, the golden shine was not obtained. Lead oxide was added to the glazes quite erratically at first, and it was only when the potters used glazes with higher lead percentages that the golden green silver lustre was produced. See the vessel on page 2 for comparison.

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10th Century Abbasid Lustreware Vessel

Monochrome Lustreware Cup - 10th Century Iraq
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Monochrome Lustreware Cup - 10th Century Iraq, from the collections of the British Museum. Trinitat Pradell

 

By the 10th century, a shift in decorative techniques is evident. The potters recognized that the gold lights noted on lustres were produced only when using certain colors and recipes; that is using silver rich lustre paints and glazes with richer quantities of lead. Gradually, the polychrome pots with varied metallic sheens were replaced by monochrome pots emphasizing the golden lights.

In addition, design elements changed. Instead of an overall design with repeating tiny flowers or patterns, the pots often displayed a single central animal figure--a bird, hare, gazelle--or a single human figure--a musician or dancer. Surrounding these figures is a background of contour panels. The patterns used on the older polychrome pots are still used in these pots, but now they appear as background elements to the story told by the central figure.

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Lustreware Bowl, Fatimid Dynasty, 11th Century Egypt

Lustreware Bowl, Fatimid Dynasty, 11th Century Egypt
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Fragment of a Lusterware Bowl. Egypt, Fatimid dynasty, 11th c. Ceramic, monochrome luster and buff underglaze decoration, pink earthenware body, 15 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. (39.4 x 39.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation, Inc., 86.227.83

 

By about AD 1000 (in the Islamic calendar 378 AH), the lustre potters left Basra and set up workshops in Fustat, Egypt, under the rule of the Fatimids. Fatimid dynasty lustres brought a new level of diversity to the pottery styles, including forms and decorations, suggesting that many of the potters were now working independently rather than as a group.

Fatimid pottery was made from a comparatively coarser clay than was available to the Basra potters and decorative techniques on the surfaces of the vessels reflect a much higher quality than the clay or glazes. Scholars have argued that this situation suggests that perhaps the lustreware guild of potters were not making the vessels themselves but rather purchased or were supplied ready-made pots and concentrated instead on decorating them. The decoration of Fatimid lustres also shows a great deal of variation with a wide variety of styles, motifs, and approaches, including royal hunting scenes, wrestlers, birds and gazelles; the art-work has a sustained informal naturalism.

At about the mid-11th century, colors used in Fatimid pots became warmer, with golden, orange and red-gold lustres becoming dominant.

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Raqqa Bowl with Peacock Decoration 13th Century

Raqqa Bowl with Peacock Decoration - 13th Century
Islamic Lustreware: Origins and Techniques Raqqa Bowl with Peacock Decoration - 13th Century. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl L. Selden, 78.81

 

In 1169, the potter's quarters in Fustat, Egypt were burned, and it is believed that the guild of lustreware potters fled to in Syria. The first lustres made in the Syrian town of Raqqa resemble the decorative style of Fatimid Egypt, but the clay was much improved now; a fine white-bodied clay.

The Raqqa potteries were quite prolific and produced a wide variety of wares including white-slips, chocolate-brown lustres, underglaze painted wares, turquoise wares, as well as Lakabi wares and Tel Minis wares previously thought to have been made elsewhere. Lustres were only a small part of the Raqqa repertoire. Unlike earlier lustres, the Raqqa examples were not restricted to court use. Many of their lustred forms were bowls, pitchers, ewers, albarelos and large jars. The lustre designs were often combined with cobalt blue underglaze decoration.

The pot illustrated in this photograph has a chocolate brown lustre made of copper and silver, the brown resulting from a richer copper admixture than any other lustre form. This pot combines a blue cobalt paint which was fired at the same time as the glaze and the ceramic, a stone paste ware. Lustre and cobalt blue decorations appear combined in Syria and in Iran from late 12th to the beginning of the 13th centuries onwards. Syrian Raqqa ceramics were produced during a very short period (about 30-40 years), but they are particularly beautiful because the artist had a secure hand while painting and a particular free style that gives movement and originality to the designs. These ceramics are not of particularly high technological quality, but the artistic value of the paintings is very high. Raqqa ceramics are quite "abstract" and very much of modern taste.