With its unusual pointed arch shape and Qur’anic inscription, this large-scale tile with interlacing vegetal decoration likely formed part of a mihrab—a niche indicating the direction of prayer within mosques and other sacred structures. Surviving mihrab assemblages incorporating similarly shaped tiles are found in museum collections throughout the world; still others remain in their original architectural context. Complex, puzzlelike configurations, these tile panels were specially designed commissioned works, carefully fitted for installation into specific locations.
Many extant tile panels of this type were produced by a family of potters sharing the nisba Kashani, indicating their origins in the city of Kashan—a traditional center for Persian ceramic production. From the early thirteenth to early fourteenth century, the patriarch of this family, Abu Tahir, and his descendants produced several mihrab tile groupings for mosques and major shrines in the region. In form and content, some of the individual tiles in these assemblages are analogous to the Museum’s example.
While the tiles that this family produced were almost without exception luster-glazed, this one is not. Rather, it is one of the few extant underglaze-painted mihrab tiles. With its simple, fresh palette of bright cobalt blue and white with touches of turquoise, its closest parallel is a tile in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, also executed in an underglaze technique. Roughly the same size and shape as the Metropolitan’s piece, the Cairo tile displays a somewhat similar vine scroll design and calligraphic script. The Cairo niche tile is joined to two other panels, one containing an inscription referring to the grouping as a mihrab, and stating that it was ordered (‘amara) by ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib ibn Abi Nas[r] in A.H. 719/1319–20 A.D. The Metropolitan’s tile, displaying a date of A.H. 722/1322–23 A.D., was produced shortly thereafter. While neither the Cairo group nor the Metropolitan’s tile can be securely attributed to the Abu Tahir family of artists, both survive as testaments to the long-lived tilework mihrab tradition established in the region by this multigenerational line of potters.
Denise-Marie Teece in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
3. Carboni and Komaroff 2002, pp. 199, 270, no. 125, and p. 128, fig. 152.
4. For more on the family and the various works that they produced, see Watson, O[liver]. "Abu Taher." In Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, December 15, 1983, available at http:// www.iranica.com/articles/abu-taher-family-ofleading- potters-from-kasan-known-throughfour-generations-602-734-1205-1333; and Watson 1985, esp. Chapter 10: "Tiles," pp. 122ff., and Appendix I: "Lustre Potters and Their Works," pp. 176ff. More recently, Sheila Blair discusses the Abu Tahir family in relation to other families of Kashani potters in Blair 2008.
5. Only one potter in this family, Yusuf ibn ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir, is known to have worked in the underglaze technique. See Watson 1983 (reference in footnote 4).
6. See Wiet 1933, pp. 134–35, no. 719, and pl. 2. It is published more recently in full color (with restoration) in O’Kane, Bernard, ed. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo. Cairo and New York, 2006, pp. 274–75, no. 236. Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (no. 3745).
7. Carboni and Komaroff 2002, p. 270 n. 2, no. 125, provides the dimensions of the Cairo tile group.
8. See Wiet 1933, p. 135
This large tile, fired in a single piece, most likely represents the top of a tall, slender, three-tile mihrab similar to the complete luster-painted niche, also in the Metropolitan Museum (MMA 09.87).The best parallel is provided by by a damged, under-glaze-painted mihrab in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, which is made up of three large tiles of slightly smaller dimensions. Underglaze-painted niches–the so-called Sultanabad type of pottery–are much less common than luster-painted examples in the Ilkhanid period.
A peculiarity of this tile is that the pointed archactually forms the upper frame of the mihrab, making it a pentagonal object, instead of being contained within a rectangular tile (as in MMA 09.87). Closely following stucco and stone models, the decoration is calligraphic on the outer band, whereas the inner filed is filled with vegetal patterns. As in the Cairo mihrab, the central tile would probably have been more elaborate with recessed niches. The inscription is from the Koran, 11:114: "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Keep up prayer in the two parts of the day and in the first hours of the night. Surely good deeds take away evil deeds. This is a reminder to the mindful." This verse is followed is followed by the year 722 written in Arabic numerals (January 20, 1322–January 10, 1323)
[Komaroff and Carboni 2002]
1. Schimmel, Annemarie, with Barbara Rivolta. "Islamic Calligraphy." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 50, no 1 (summer 1992), pp. 29–30, fig. 29; Carboni, Stefano and Tomoko Masuya. Persian Tiles. Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993, p. 30, no. 25.
Blair, Sheila S. The Ilkhanid Shrine Complex at Natanz, Iran. Harvard Middle East Papers, Classical Series, 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, 1986, pp. 5–7.
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Jenkins [Madina], Marilyn. "Islamic Pottery: A Brief History." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 40, no. 4 (Spring 1983)
See Masuya, Tomoko. "Persian Tiles on European Walls: Collecting Ilkhanid Tiles in Nineteenth Century Europe." Ars Orientalis 30 (2000), pp. 39–54. Special Issue, Exhibiting the Middle East: Collections and Perceptions of Islamic Art, edited by Linda Komaroff.
The Islamic World. Introduction by Stuart Cary Welch. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.
Simpson, Marianna Shreve. The Illustrations of an Epic: The Earliest "Shahnama" Manuscripts. Outstanding Dissertations in the Fine Arts. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1979.
Marianna Shreve Simpson. "A Reconstruction and Preliminary Account of the 1341 Shahnama with Some Further Thoughts on Early Shahnama Illustration." In Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars: Studies in Honor of Basil W. Robinson, edited by Robert Hillenbrand, pp. 218–19, pls. 1, 2. Pembroke Persian Papers, 3. London and New York: I. B. Taurus in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, 2000.
Schimmel, Annemarie, with Barbara Rivolta. "Islamic Calligraphy." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 50, no 1 (summer 1992), p. 16, no. 19.
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