As the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt declined and finally fell to Salah al-Din in 1171, its skilled craftsmen sought new markets for their wares. Some of them, like the makers of lusterware ceramics, emigrated to Syria and Iran. The creation of lusterware pottery required special knowledge and technical skill, which, apparently, were closely guarded secrets; thus it was not produced simultaneously in different centers in the Islamic world during the eleventh century. Instead, the technique of lusterware passed from Abbasid Iraq to Fatimid Egypt, and then in the twelfth century from Egypt to Syria and Iran. In the earliest Iranian lusterwares the stylistic influence of Fatimid antecedents is particularly marked.
As on one distinct group of Fatimid lusterwares, the main motif of this bowl, a winged horse, appears reserved on a luster ground. A lively vine scroll terminating in split leaves and trefoil shapes weaves through the space around the horse. The animal’s slightly rearing pose, the backward swing of its head, and the dramatic S-curve of its wing all complement the circular shape of the bowl. On the interior walls, above a plain band of white glaze, a repeating but illegible kufic inscription appears in a band of small vegetal elements. The small scale and density of the comma-shaped vegetal motifs anticipate the so-called Kashan style of Persian lusterware that matured around 1200. However, the luster-painted gadrooning around the inner rim of the bowl, along with the single large image of the winged horse, strongly relates to Fatimid lusterware and suggests that this piece was made between 1180 and 1200.
Although Buraq, the human-headed horse that Muhammad rode on his night journey to heaven (mi‘raj) is also winged, the horse in this bowl is more likely derived from Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth. Whether the ancient iconography of Pegasus as the bearer of Zeus’s thunderbolts was understood by its maker or owner is unclear. However, medieval Iranians certainly would have been familiar with the constellation named after Pegasus, Faras al-‘Azam. While the clusters of three dots that decorate the horse’s body are found in many lusterwares and in the earlier ceramics of Nishapur, they also suggest the stars one would see in a drawn depiction of the constellation of Pegasus. In a society in which astrology and astronomy played an important role, a bowl containing a winged horse would certainly have had positive connotations for its owner.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
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