Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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Tile From an Inscriptional Frieze

Object Name:
Tile from a frieze
Date:
dated A.H. 707/A.D. 1308
Geography:
From Iran, Natanz
Medium:
Stonepaste; underglaze painted in blue, luster-painted on opaque white ground, modeled
Dimensions:
H. 15 in. (38.1 cm) W. 15 in. (38.1 cm)
Classification:
Ceramics-Tiles
Credit Line:
Gift of Emile Rey, 1912
Accession Number:
12.44
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 455
This tile is one in a series which probably once formed a glittering inscriptional frieze encircling the walls of a 14th-century tomb pavilion located in Natanz, Iran. The cobalt-blue inscription is set against a field of scrolling vines, wherein tiny birds perch amongst leafy foliage, some alighting upon the letters themselves. The frieze likely sat close to eye level, permitting the intricacies of the tile's drawing to be admired, while crowning a dado of equally opulent star- and cross-shaped tiles.
Elegant calligraphy in thuluth script graces the central band of this large, intricately decorated tile. Executed in low relief, the cobalt-blue glazed inscription is set against a field of scrolling vines, where tiny birds perch among leafy foliage—some alighting upon the letters themselves.
The theme of birds in vegetation is continued in the smaller band above, which contains a series of confronted birds between small plantings.[3] Appreciable both from a distance and upon closer examination, the bold, sweeping lines of calligraphy stand in sharp contrast to the detailed rendering of the inhabited background, finished in a gold luster glaze with touches of turquoise. This tile was probably one in a series that formed a glittering inscriptional frieze encircling the interior walls of a fourteenth-century tomb pavilion located in Natanz, Iran.[4] The frieze sat close to eye level, crowning a dado of equally opulent star- and cross-shaped tiles.[5] This tomb pavilion was erected in honor of Nur al- Din ‘Abd al-Samad, a shaikh of the Suhrawardiyya sufi order. Shortly after ‘Abd al-Samad’s death in about 1300 construction began on a tomb complex in his honor in Natanz, a city located a few miles north of Isfahan.[6] The complex soon became a shrine that pilgrims visited to pay homage to the shaikh.[7]
Upon entering the tomb, a visitor would have encountered walls covered with carved stuccowork and luster-painted tiles, including this piece. Other similarly inscribed and decorated tiles, also attributed to ‘Abd al-Samad’s tomb pavilion, contain Qur’anic verses from Sura 76, passages that describe the rewards awaiting the worthy in Paradise.[8] This tile, however, contains an Arabic inscription with the date A.H. 707, said to mark the year in which work was completed on the tomb.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Footnotes:
3. The heads of the birds on the Metropolitan’s tile, as well as those on many other tiles also said to be from the shrine, appear to have been intentionally defaced, likely due to iconoclastic sentiment.
4. For comparable pieces, see Ettinghausen, Richard. "Dated Faience." In Pope, A. U., and Ackerman, eds. 1938–39, vol. 2, pp. 1667–96; vol. 5, pt. 1, pls. 734 – 35, 738; and Blair 1986, pp. 100–101 and n. 23. Blair, p. 64, states that about twenty such tiles are known. She reproduces the Museum’s piece on p. 137, pl. 53. See also Blair, Sheila [S]. "The Religious Art of the Ilkhanids." In Carboni and Komaroff 2002, pp. 126–28 and fig. 149, no. 114. For information on the movement of tiles from Natanz into private and public collections, see Masuya, Tomoko. "Persian Tiles on European Walls: Collecting Ilkhanid Tiles in Nineteenth-Century Europe." Ars Orientalis 30 [Exhibiting the Middle East: Collections and Perceptions of Islamic Art, edited by Linda Komaroff] (2000), pp. 39–54, esp. pp. 41–44.
5. Blair 1986, p. 134, pl. 47, shows a section of where the cross- and star-shaped tile dado and related luster frieze once were installed. On ibid., p. 64, Blair states that this dado measures about sixty-five inches (165 cm) high. See also pp. 50, 64, where she discusses the placement of the Metropolitan’s tile with respect to the dado.
6. Ibid., p. 5. The shaikh is said to have died in about A.H. 699/1299–1300 A.D. For more on the dating of the different parts of the complex, see ibid., pp. 17, and 20ff.
7. Ibid., p. 21.
8. On ibid., p. 64, Blair states that other tiles in the group contain portions of verses 76:1–7.
Inscription: In Arabic in thuluth script:[1]

شوا[ ل سنة سبع وسبعمایة[

[Shawwa]l of the year A.H. 707 [A.D. March 24–April 22, 1308] [2]

Footnotes:
1. It has been suggested that the letter lam, positioned at the beginning of the text, likely represents the last letter of the month Shawwal, allowing us to more precisely date the tile to March 24 to April 22 of 1308. See Carboni and Masuya 1993, p. 25, no. 20.

2. (The spelling of سبعمایة is provided as it appears on the tile).
Shrine of Nur al-Din 'Abd al-Samad at Natanz, Iran (from 1308)

Emile Rey, New York (until 1912; gifted to MMA)
New York. Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery. "Persian Tiles," May 4, 1993–January 2, 1994, no. 20.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament, Part IV: Figural Representation," September 16, 1999–January 30, 2000, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia 1256-1353," October 28, 2002–February 16, 2003, no. 114.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia 1256-1353," April 13, 2003–July 27, 2003, no. 114.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.

Blair, Sheila S. "The Ilkhanid shrine complex at Natanz." PhD diss., Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, 1986. pp. 5-7, 21, 50, 64, ill. pl. 47.

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. p. 75, ill. fig. 55 (color).

Carboni, Stefano, and Tomoko Masuya. Persian Tiles. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. no. 20, p. 25, ill. (b/w).

Masuya, Tomoko. "Persian Tiles on European Walls." Ars Orientalis vol. 30 (2000). p. 40, ill. fig 1 (b/w).

Rossabi, Morris, Charles Melville, James C.Y. Watt, Tomoko Masuya, Sheila S. Blair, Robert Hillenbrand, Linda Komaroff, Stefano Carboni, Sarah Bertelan, and John Hirx. The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353, edited by Stefano Carboni, and Linda Komaroff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 114, pp. 127, 268, ill. fig. 149 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 77, p. 120, ill. p. 120 (color).



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