Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Bowl with Two Facing Peacocks

Object Name:
second–third quarter 10th century
Made in Iraq, probably Basra
Earthenware; luster-painted on opaque white glaze
H. 3 3/4 in. (9.5 cm) Diam. 12 1/8 in. (30.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Fletcher Fund, 1964
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 451
Birds were a particularly popular subject in the Abbasid period, as artists in many media transformed the creatures’ beaks and wings into increasingly abstracted designs. The symmetrical pattern of two peacocks facing each other finds iconographic precedents in examples dating from the late antique and Byzantine periods, where it often carried paradisiacal connotations. The exterior is painted with a simple pattern of circles and lines. The underside of the foot is glazed and bears an Arabic inscription. Monochrome luster examples such as this were characteristic of the "second phase" of Abbasid lusterware, which developed in centers in Iraq in the tenth century.
While this bowl and bowl 64.134 share the creamy yellow body fabric so characteristic of Basra pottery, they represent two very different approaches to luster painting and design, reflecting discrete phases in the history of Abbasid lusterware.[1] This bowl belongs to the early phase, associated with the first half of the ninth century. Standing on a low foot, its curved sides terminate in an everted lip. Polychrome painting, a distinctive feature of early Abbasid lusterware, decorates both the interior and the exterior; here, the
potters used three colors—olive green, yellow gold, and copper red. Most of the luster ceramics dating to this early period bear nonfigural designs that explore pattern and texture within a rubric of stylized vegetal motifs or geometric frameworks. On this bowl, the tension between the structure of the checkerboard format, the variety of patterns within its compartments, and the painterly freedom with which they are executed is particularly successful. Reminiscent of a pattern sampler, the decoration includes herringbone designs, “peacock-eye” motifs, and rows of dots and stipples probably inspired by millefiori glass.[2] The variety and dynamism of early lusterware design correspond to the expansive and vibrant time of al-Mu‘tasim (r. 833–42) and his foundation of Samarra, where luster tiles decorated the new palaces, and a period when the distribution of Basra ceramics reached far and wide.[3]

Bowl 64.134 represents Basra lusterware roughly a century later. The bowl profile now has a straighter wall and lip. More significant is the new approach to painting and design. The densely patterned backgrounds and the continued use of certain motifs, such as the “peacock eye,” provide continuity with early Abbasid lusterware. By this time, however, potters had abandoned polychrome painting in favor of monochrome decoration. Their designs are often figural, with central human or animal forms, alone or in symmetrical pairs. This bowl depicts confronted peacocks flanking a plant, against a ground filled with a repeated V-shape. This shift in decoration may reflect the taste of a new elite, since the period coincides with the arrival of the Buyids in Iraq.[4]
Ellen Kenney in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Ernst Kuhnel’s identification of three phases of Abbasid lusterware is more or less supported by recent petrographic analysis; see Kuhnel 1934 and Mason 2004. Mason has sampled and analyzed the petrography of both of these bowls and has published their profile drawings, ibid., pp. 192–93.
2. The exterior of the bowl bears the "dash-circle" motif diagnostic of early Basra production.
3. One fragment of a luster tile excavated from Samarra is in the Metropolitan’s collection (acc. no. 23.75.25); for others, see Sarre et al. 1925, pls. 21, 22; Porter, V. 1995, pp. 24–27, figs. 10, 12; and Watson 2004, p. 184, no. E.1 (LNS 1057 C). On the wide distribution of early Basra lusterware, see Mason 2004, p. 44.
4. Mason 2004, pp. 159–60.
Inscription: In Arabic, on the underside: [Inscription unread]

In Arabic and in Kufic script on the base:

[ Khalil Rabenou, New York, until 1964; sold to MMA]
Grube, Ernst J. "The Art of Islamic Pottery." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 23, no. 6 (February 1965). p. 211, ill. figs. 3-4 (b/w).

Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. "Muslim: An Early Fatimid Ceramist." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 26 (May 1968). p. 361, ill. fig. 4 (b/w).

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. 12, pp. 35-36, ill. p. 35 (color).

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