During the nearly forty years he was active as a master potter, Abu Zayd was also a proficient poet. He composed at least one of the love poems inscribed on this bowl. The scene depicted, probably a literary majlis, does not relate explicitly to any of these poems. However, the performer to the left may be interpreted as reciting them to the figures seated on and around the raised platform.
Oh beloved, did you see what the snow (white hair) did to me? / Oh snow (white hair), you told me, but tell my beloved // To the passion (fire) of lovers . . . and cold(?) / And you are still flirting with me! // Oh body, the sorrow of love will not make you any better (than this) / Will not (help) . . . your soul and faith // At the end, the sweetness of lust will entrap you / So that love will not make a fool of you.
Two Bowls (MMA 64.178.1 and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford EA1956.33)
The figurative scene painted on these bowls, one realized in the mina’i technique and the other in luster, show two variations of scenes commonly reproduced in the repertoire of Iranian ceramics from the twelfth century onward: a group of people sit together while not being explicitly engaged in any activity. In some occurrences one or more personages are more prominently positioned on a throne.
The extensive inscriptions on Iranian ceramics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rarely contain elucidations of the depicted imagery, as they most commonly include benedictions for the owner of the vessel, verses from one or more poems in Persian and Arabic, and, less frequently, the name of the potter and the date of manufacture. It is therefore difficult to decipher the meaning of such scenes as envisioned by the artist. However, by considering them within the broader iconographic repertoire of portable objects of the period, most often showing personages engaged in various aspects of courtly life, scholars have come to identify such gatherings as evocative of the literary majalis (sing. majlis), at which courtiers and literati assembled for poem recitals, sometimes with contests as to their erudition and skills at poetic improvisation. Majalis may be linked to public audiences or include forms of entertainment such as music, dancing, and feasting, representing one of the foremost leisurely diversions of the Great Seljuqs and their successors. They were not, however, strictly a princely prerogative and were also enjoyed among social and intellectual elites outside the court.
The verses inscribed on this vessel, despite having no clear association to the image depicted, may complete the evocation of the majlis, as if giving voice to the performers. At the same time, they challenge the literary knowledge of the viewer, who could himself reenact the experience of the majlis by testing his own erudition. The mina'i bowl (MMA 64.178.1) exemplifies the possibility of an interaction between image and text while underlining the importance of oral performance and written composition. The person seated apart from the rest of the group performs in front of two prominent figures on the throne, or takht. His hand gestures convey a heartfelt and skillful rhetoric and are mirrored by the main figure on the takht, whose own gesture seems to be responding to the orator.
The bowl was made by a master potter, Abu Zayd, who during nearly forty years of activity was not only responsible for a number of exquisite vessels in both luster and mina’i, but was himself a proficient poet. In addition to frequently signing and dating his creations, he might include some of his own verses among the poetic inscriptions, such as on MMA 64.178.1. The poems on this mina’i bowl, at least one of which was composed by Abu Zayd, deal with love and therefore do not relate explicitly to the image. They are not, however, extradiegetic to the majlis and may be interpreted as the verses recited by the performer—an intellectual play interrupted by the claim of ownership of the author himself. Details of this skillfully executed majlis, of which Abu Zayd made several variants, add a uniquely realistic note to an otherwise conventional depiction while also resonating with the tone of the love poems: one of the standing courtiers leans slightly on the takht, suggesting the informality and empathy of the shared experience of the performance.
An assembly in a similarly peaceful outdoor setting, also with a pond or stream, birds, and fish, appears on the luster bowl (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford EA1956.33) painted in the “Kashan style.” Here, too, the six figures, five of whom wear head ornaments with a teardrop diadem and are thus recognizable as women, may represent the audience of a majlis. Their serene poses and moonshaped faces convey the ideal of beauty as expressed in the poetry of the period, and may recall the metaphor of the planet Venus (here in its Arabic form, zuhra) in the verses inscribed on the bowl. As the verses also use the notion of a “majlis of life” to express the importance of the beloved’s presence, the bowl’s scene may even be read as a transcendent gathering.
Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]
1. That MMA 64.178.1 and a large number of similar bowls (e.g., Metropolitan Museum, 64.178.2) bear dates in the month of Muharram allows for a possible Shiite reading of the iconography, for important Shiite commemorative ceremonies take place that month. Additionally, the vessels’ makers descend from the line of ‘Ali, from which the Shiite faction emerged.
2. Majalis were already well documented by the Abbasid period and go back to Sasanian times (Ed[itorial Committee]. “Madjlis. I. In Social and Cultural Life.” In EI2 1960–2009, vol. 5, 1986, pp. 1031–33)
3. Pancaroglu, Oya. “The Seljuks of Iran and Their Successors. The Emergence of Turkic Dynastic Presence in the Islamic World: Cultural Experiences and Artistic Horizons, 950–1250.” In Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600. Exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005. Catalogue by David J. Roxburgh and others. London, 2005, p. 388; Pancaroglu, Oya. Perpetual Glory: Medieval Islamic Ceramics from the Harvey B. Plotnick Collection. Chicago, 2007, pp. 138–39. Blair, Sheila S. “A Brief Biography of Abu Zayd.” Muqarnas 25 [Frontiers of Islamic Art and Architecture: Essays in Celebration of Oleg Grabar’s Eightieth Birthday, edited by Gülru Necipoglu and Julia Bailey] (2008), p. 167 compares Abu Zayd’s familiar use of poetical fragments to that of contemporary literates (such as Rawandi as investigated by Julie Scott Meisami).
4. Blair 2008 (reference in note 3 above); Watson, Oliver. “Documentary mına’ı and Abu Zaid’s Bowls.” In Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia: Proceedings of a Symposium Held in Edinburgh in 1982. Islamic Art and Architecture, 4. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1994, pp. 170–80; Watson, Oliver. Persian Lustre Ware. The Faber Monographs on Pottery and Porcelain. London and Boston, 1985; Pancaroglu, Oya. “Potter’s Trail: An Abu Zayd Ewer in the Saint Louis Art Museum.” in Porter, Venetia, and Mariam Rosser-Owen, eds. Metalwork and Material Culture in the Islamic World: Art, Craft and Text; Essays Presented to James W. Allan. London, 2012, pp. 397–409. The nisba al-Kashani, with which Abu Zayd is often named, derives from earlier misreadings of the inscriptions and is not found in any of his signed pieces (Watson 1994 (reference in this note above), pp. 171–73; Graves, Margaret S. “Kashan. vii. Kashan Ware.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica Online 1996– (2014); http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kashan-vii-kashan-ware; contra Blair 2008 (reference in note 3 above), p. 161, which asserts his family was from Kashan). Abu Zayd’s only direct relationship with Kashan is his collaborations with the Abu Tahir family of potters, who use the nisba Qashani (sic) in some of their inscriptions.
5. Abdullah Ghouchani has shown that the poems found on mina’i vessels may have been taken from anthologies, which would have been available to potters and read aloud in ateliers (quoted in Blair 2008 [reference in note 3 above], p. 167). A mystical reading is also possible; see Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Catalogue by Ladan Akbarnia with Francesca Leoni. Houston, 2010, pp. 90–91.
6. For in-depth analyses of the complexity of Abu Zayd’s vessels, see Guest, Grace D. and Ettinghausen, Richard. “The Iconography of a Kāshān Luster Plate.” Ars Orientalis 4 (1961), p. 58, and Pancaroglu 2012 (reference in note 4 above).
7. Watson 1985 (reference in note 4 above).
8. See Guest and Ettinghausen 1961 (reference in note 6 above), pp. 52–53 for the Persian expression “az mah ta mahi” (from the moon to the fish) for depictions of moon-faced figures and fish, which may convey a range of meanings, from the mystical to the erotic.
Inscription: ای تن غم عشق به کزینت نکند ... بجان و دینت نکند در دام عافیت (عاقبت) شکر پای هوس تا عشق سزاوار آستینت نکند
Oh body, the sorrow of love will not make you any better [than this] Will not [help]…. your soul and faith At the end, the sweetness of lust will entrap you So that, love will not make a fool of you
Outside: دیدی که چه کرد برف با ما یارا ای برف بگفتمی ولی گو یارا بر آتش عاشقان ... و سرد تو هم گرم گرفتی مارا
Oh beloved, Did you see what the snow (white hair) did to me? Oh snow (white hair), you told me but tell my beloved ….to the passion (fire) of lovers ….and cold[?] And you are still flirting with me…
قائله کاتبه ابو زید بعد ما عمله کتبه فی یوم الاربعاء الرابع من محرم سنه اثنی و ثمانین و خمسمائة هجریة عربیة بقا لصاحبه و کاتبه
Abu Zayd himself made it and composed it, Wednesday, 4th of Muharram 582 A.H.—Longevity to the owner and poet
All poems on this bowl are from Abu Zayd the famous potter from Kashan.
On the interior on the rim there is an inscription in decorative kufic script.
On the interior in the register below there is a Persian poem in naskhi script:
ای تن غم عشق به کزینت نکند ... بجان و دینت نکند
در دام عافیت ... کز پای هوس تا عشق سرا در آستینت نکند
On the exterior there is a Persian poem in Naskhi script that reads:
دیدی که چه کرد برف با ما یارا ای برف بگفتمی ولی گو یارا
بر آتش عاشقان ... و سرد تو هم گرم گرفتی مارا
قائله و کاتبه ابو زید بعد ماعمله کتب فی یوم الاربعاء الرابع من محرم سنة إثنی و ثمانین و خمسمائة هجریة عربیة بقاء لصاحبه و کاتبه
Emile Tabbagh, New York (until 1936; sale, Anderson Galleries,New York, January 4, 1936, no. 154); [ M. Parish-Watson, New York, by 1938–at least 1940]; Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen, Guildford, CT (until 1964; sale,Sotheby's, London, June 8, 1964, no. 135, to MMA)
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931.
The Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. I, no. 27E.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 40.
Anderson Galleries, Inc. Emile Tabbagh Collection. New York, January 4, 1936. no. 154, p. 61, ill.
Harari, Ralph, and Richard Ettinghausen. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, edited by Arthur Upham Pope. Vol. I-VI. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. v. II, p. 1627.
Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: The Iranian Institute, 1940. no. Gallery I, case 27E, p. 31.
Sotheby's, London. Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen Collection. London, 1964. no. 135, p. 53, ill.
Grube, Ernst J. "The Art of Islamic Pottery." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 23, no. 6 (February 1965). p. 224, ill. fig. 30 (b/w).
Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Encyclopaedia Iranica vol. 5 (1992). p. 317, ill. pl. XXVI (b/w).
Blair, Sheila S. "A Brief Biography of Abu Zayd." Muqarnas vol. 25 (2008). pp. 156-157, ill. fig. 3 (b/w).
Canby, Sheila R., Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi. "The Great Age of the Seljuqs." In Court and Cosmos. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 40, pp. 112-113, ill. p. 112 (color).