Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Apothecary Jar with Running Hares and a Dog

Object Name:
12th century
Country of Origin Iran
Stonepaste; luster-painted on opaque white glaze
H. 7 1/4 in. (18.4 cm) Diam. 4 in. (10.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 2013
Accession Number:
Not on view
This jar was used to store solid substances (dried herbs, roots, bark, seeds, and fruit, or salts, minerals, and metals) most likely employed in the preparation of drugs or home remedies. The iconography is not directly connected to the jar’s function, but the chasing animals and the Arabic benedictory words addressed to the owner convey an overall propitious symbolism. For their cleverness and speed the hare seems to have been regarded as especially auspicious.
Two Apothecary Jars (MMA 2013.255 and Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge C125-1935)

These jars may have been used by physicians to store dried herbs, roots, bark, seeds, and fruit; balms, honey, and other bee products; salts, minerals, and metals; and various other solid or viscous substances, all of which might be employed in the preparation of drugs or home remedies.[1] Similar stonepaste jars with simple cylindrical shapes, or albarelli (see below for the emergence of the term), were introduced in the eleventh century and became common by the second half of the twelfth, when variations in shape, such as that seen in Fitzwilliam Museum C125-1935, also began to appear.[2] The shape finds antecedents in earlier earthenware productions, for example, in Iranian monochrome green and brown wares of the tenth and eleventh centuries (alongside more common variations with a rounded shoulder).[3] The slimmer neck would have allowed for a flap of leather or other material to be fastened around it with a string, thereby securing the contents of the jar (although a lid might have been employed for the same purpose) and allowing for easier handling.

While Islamic pharmacology was based largely on Greek traditions transmitted by Dioscorides and Galen, innovations included new applications of known remedies—for example, using wormwood, a species of Artemisia, to treat opium poisoning—and the introduction of new ingredients including camphor, musk, senna, myrobalan (the fruit of Terminalia trees), and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride).[4] Trained physicians were not the only ones to prescribe and prepare potions, balms, and other drugs. Popular medical knowledge, oftentimes transmitted by women, promulgated at-home medicine—as did untrained doctors and, to more nefarious ends, charlatans, about whom flourished a popular literature stemming from their real and fictional exploits. Beginning in the tenth century, moreover, some religious scholars advocated for prophetic medicine (al-tibb al-nabawi) as an alternative to Greek methodologies and prescribed simple remedies based on the Qur’an and the Sunna.[5]

The extensive Islamic medical literature gives very detailed recipes for pharmaceuticals but significantly less information on the tools needed to make them. There are, however, many vivid illustrations of apothecaries at work, most often preparing potions in deep cooking pots or vessels, in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century medical treatises, among them the Kitab al-diryaq (Book of antidotes) of 1198 (cat. 106 in this volume, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Arabe 2964) and the 1224 copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (cats. 107a, b in this volume, MMA 57.51.21 and Walters Art Museum W675).

Save for one exception (see below), no albarello was found with its original contents, but the cylindrical body of the earliest ones connects them to later examples from Ayyubid and Mamluk Syria and Egypt, for whom there is evidence of their apothecary use. These were extensively traded well beyond the Mediterranean basin, presumably for their contents,[6] and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they began to be replicated in Italian maiolica. (Indeed, albarello is an Italian term, broadly applied to denote a cylindrical apothecary jar with a narrow neck.[7]) Known Mamluk and Italian examples bear inscriptions stating their intended contents, and sometimes the name of the facility or hospital for which they were made, as well.[8] A Syrian example containing a white residue was excavated together with other vessels and grave goods at the Chungul Kurgan, an early thirteenth-century princely burial in the Black Sea Steppe. It may have contained a healing substance for the tomb’s royal Turkish (Qıpčaq/Cuman/Polovtsian) occupant.[9] Finally, similar jars appear among other vessels in a scene set beside a pharmacy in a thirteenth-century manuscript of Ibn Butlan’s (d. 1066) Da‘wat al-atibba’ (The physicians’ banquet), written in 1054.[10]

Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that albarelli were used to store nonmedicinal ingredients. In this respect it is interesting to note that, while Syrian albarelli are glazed on the interior, making them water-resistant and airtight–that is, suitable for both dry and viscous materials–MMA 2013.255, from Iran, is glazed only inside its neck, rendering it inappropriate for substances that might need preservation from air exposure.[11] Both jars' iconography is not directly connected to anything they may have contained, although the overall auspicious symbolism would certainly have been suitable for the promotion of good health. Such an interpretation finds further credence in the inscribed benedictions, as well as in the courtly figures and chasing animals, all of which are motifs related to the courtly cycle. For their cleverness and speed, as implied by the dog giving chase in MMA 2013.255, the hare seems to have been regarded as especially auspicious (see also cat. 137 in this volume, Dallas Museum of Art K.I.2014.71).

Martina Rugiadi in [Canby, Beyazit, and Rugiadi 2016]


1. Pormann, Peter E., and Emilie Savage-Smith. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Washington, D.C., 2007, pp. 119–20 (drugs) and pp. 90–93, 108–9, 151–58 (charlatans and popular medicine).

2. The jar was extensively restored in the past.

3. Coeval examples include a Fatimid luster albarello of similar shape to MMA 2013.255, excavated from an eleventh-century context in Fustat (Kubiak, Wladyslaw B., and George T. Scanlon. “Fustat Expedition: Preliminary Report, 1971, Part I.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 16 (1979), p. 110); and stonepaste ones, either monochrome turquoise or underglaze-painted, excavated at Nishapur, probably produced in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries in the east kilns of the site, where they were found (Wilkinson, Charles K. Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period. New York, [1973], pp. 265–66, 270–71, nos. 11, 13, 19, 41). Iranian earthenware
antecedents include those found at Isfahan, Istakhr, and Nishapur. The latter are green-glazed (ibid., pp. 235–36, 246, no. 28) or slip-painted (ibid., pp. 106, 125, no. 71). See also an earlier splash-ware example, possibly of the ninth or tenth century, at the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels (Van Raemdonck, Mieke, et al. En harmonie: Art du monde islamique au Musée du Cinquantenaire. Tielt, 2015. Issued in Dutch as In harmonie: Kunst uit de islamitische wereld in het Jubelparkmuseum, p. 54, no. I.4).

4. Pormann and Savage-Smith 2007(reference in note 1 above), pp. 119–20.

5. Ibid., pp. 51–55, 71–75.

6. Syria of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a major hub for the trade of apothecary goods (Holod, Renata, and Yuriy Rassamakin. “Imported and Native Remedies for a Wounded ‘Prince’: Grave Goods from the Chungul Kurgan in the Black Sea Steppe of the Thirteenth Century.” Medieval Encounters 18, nos. 4–5 [Mechanisms of Exchange: Transmission in Medieval Art and Architecture in the Mediterranean, ca. 1000–1500, edited by Heather E. Grossman and Alicia Walker] (December 2012), pp. 339–81).

7. The etymology is controversial: an Arabic origin is today generally dismissed in favor of a Latin one tied to the term alveolus (vessel) or albarius (tree); see Scerrato, Umberto. “Albarello.” In Enciclopedia dell’arte Medievale, 1991; /albarello_(Enciclopedia_dell’_Arte_Medievale)/.. Among the earliest attestations is an 1196 document mentioning a “parvum albarello[m] de t[e]ra
cu[m] globo” (a small ceramic albarello with a globular lid); see Larson, Pär. “Ancora su . . . il Glossario diplomatico toscano.” Studi linguistici italiani 24 (1998), p. 114.

8. The inscriptions on a pear-shaped Mamluk jar in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (PO 40), include the word nawfar, or water lily, and state that it was made for the hospital “al-Nuri,” presumably the one established by Nur al-Din in Damascus (Holod and Rassamakin
2012 [reference in note 6 above], p. 372; for the image see;
accessed January 6, 2016).

9. Holod and Rassamakin 2012 (ibid., p. 362 n. 30).

10. Fol. 4v (Baer, Eva. “The Illustrations for an Early Manuscript of Ibn Butlan’s Da‘wat al-Atibba’ in the L. A. Mayer Memorial in Jerusalem.” Muqarnas 19 [2002], p. 2, fig. 1). Baer (ibid., pp. 9–10) proposes a date in the second quarter of the thirteenth century, while Rachel Ward (quoted in ibid.) suggested the beginning of that century.

11. The glaze on the interior of Syrian and Egyptian examples is often applied unevenly. As for the dating of MMA 2013.255, its foot is cut obliquely on the interior, a typical feature for the earliest (11th-century) stonepaste productions (see also Metropolitan Museum, 20.120.56).
Inscription: On the rim in Arabic in cursive:

العز؟ الدائم و الاقبال الزائد و النصر الغالب و الدائم والسعادة و الکرامة و الدولة و النعمة و البرکة و الر[أ]فة و ... و البقاء لصاحبه
Perpetual glory(?) and increasing prosperity, conquering and lasting victory, happiness, generosity, dominion, prosperity, blessing, and Mercy [...] long life to its owner.
Richard H. Zinser, Forest Hills, NY (until d. 1983; his estate, from 1983); [ Paul Anavian, New York, 2012–13; sold to MMA]
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs," April 25, 2016–July 24, 2016, no. 96.

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. 95, pp. 168-169, ill. p. 168 (color).

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