These Islamic bowls fascinate me, and I’m not sure why. They’re startlingly simple. I don’t read Arabic, and I never remember what the inscriptions say. (Because I just looked it up, I can tell you that the inscription on the bowl below reads either: “Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace,”(1) or “Deliberation before action protects you from regret. Luck and well-being.”)(2) There seems to be a slight disagreement about the translation, which I also find fascinating.) I rarely see one of these bowls, but when I do, I practically swoon.
I was in San Antonio recently and went to the San Antonio Museum of Art on their weekly free evening. (how cool is that, that they have a free evening every week?) When I go to an art museum that I’ve never been to, I always hope that they’ll have something Ancient Near Eastern or Islamic, and I’m usually disappointed. But this time, I saw the words “Ancient Near Eastern” and “Islamic” on the museum map. Could it be true? A docent-led tour was about to start, and when the docent asked what we wanted to see, of course I requested those areas. (By the way, I just have to say that docents rule. There’s nothing like a good docent-led tour, and the docent in San Antonio was incredible. If you’re in a museum and a public tour is about to start, chances are that it’ll be worth tagging along, at least for awhile.) When we got to the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic room, tucked in a corner furthest from the entrance, there was this bowl, innocently sitting in the case, just minding its own business amongst the other Islamic ceramics :
I honestly felt my knees give way a little bit. Again, I’m not sure exactly these affect me so strongly. They’re bowls, and therefore functional. They’re simple. They’re old. They were probably made in small areas of Iran and probably Uzbekistan, where they were found, so it’s thought that they were made for local use rather than for export. They’re decorated with words, which is particularly appealing for someone who loves manipulating and playing with words and their meanings. I’m sure that there’s also something to the fact that I can’t read them. Would I respond in the same way if the inscription were written in a language that I could understand? I doubt it. And then there’s the workmanship — the skill that went into making the ceramic, the thought that went into abstracting the text (and how was the text chosen?), and the actual execution of the writing on the bowl. Because Islamic artists didn’t depict humans in their art, they were limited to plants, ornamental motifs, and words. This helped the beauty of words and calligraphy to become a major part of their art. And really, ultimately, I just find them remarkably beautiful.
Here’s another, slightly different bowl , also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (“Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”):
These bowls aren’t particularly common, but if you find yourself in New York (the Met or Brooklyn Museum), or San Antonio or London (V&A, British Museum) or Jerusalem or San Francisco, go in and visit these unassuming yet powerful bowls. Tell them I said hi.
Want more? These articles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Spring 1983 Bulletin and the February 1965 Bulletin are good on the history of Islamic ceramics. And they’re actually very interesting reads.
(2) Annemarie Schimmel, with the assistance of Barbara Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 50, no. 1 (Summer, 1992), 12.