Prosperity and Peace and Everything Nice: 10th century Islamic Bowls

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.

Bowl with Arabic Inscription, 10th century, Nishapur, Iran, Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York

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 :

10th century, Nishapur, Earthenware with black and white slip, San Antonio Museum of Art

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.”):

Bowl with Arabic Inscription, late 10th–11th century Found at Iran, Nishapur (probably from Samarqand),10th-11th centuries AD

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.

(1) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/65.106.2

(2) Annemarie Schimmel, with the assistance of Barbara Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 50, no. 1 (Summer, 1992), 12.

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8 thoughts on “Prosperity and Peace and Everything Nice: 10th century Islamic Bowls

  1. I love your point of view of these bowls Karen. Growing up surrounded by these kinds of artifacts, for the most part I took them for granted and due to the language I always thought of them as having a religious connotation. Of course the religious connotation is inescapable since it was such an inherent part of life back then, but today being able to admire them as works of art, they take on a whole new meaning.

    Dr Jerrilyn Dodds proposes that these bowls and their calligraphy are the sign of a people wanting to be engaged intellectually. I found this argument quite appealing.

    • Thanks, Sedef! I love that you grew up with things like this. Their functionality is probably what’s most appealing to me and why I’m so interested in both Islamic and African art. What we in the US put in a museum, they used. Fascinating. Do you have a citation for the Dodds piece? I’d like to read it. Thanks!

  2. I confess I was unfamiliar with these bowls before reading your post, but I find them captivating. They remind me of musical notes – which would mean a line of music would repeat again and again.

    Thanks for the bit of beauty this added to my day!

    • Thanks for reading, Shannon! Glad you like them — I never know if what moves me will move anyone else. Love that they remind you of musical notes — I hadn’t thought of that, but I can really see it now. Thanks for your perspective!

  3. Thank you for showing these beautiful bowls, Karen and also your thoughts on docent-led tours in the museum context. Perhaps the bowls were made by one artist and then a specialist added the text before firing. Makes me think about private commissions not unlike those developed for books in private libraries in Damascus and Cordoba

    • Thanks for visiting, Alison! I love your comparison with books — could be! And ever since I went on a tour of a Jeff Koons exhibit led by a docent, I’ll always take go on them whenever I can. I would have walked through that show without any appreciation without that amazing, and brand new, docent.

  4. Karen – I loved these bowls, the first depicted moved me the most. They reminded me somewhat of some earlier pottery of the Ancient Pueblans (Mimbres?) or Acoma Pueblo designs even those these are geometric and not curvilinear. But some of the motifs used refer to cloud, rain, corn…so written language of a kind. I’m enjoying having the time today to read your posts. Really nice!

    • Thanks, Trudy. Yes! They remind me of them, too! Thanks for the reminder — will have to take another look!

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