An example of medieval Islamic high-tin bronze ware, this metal bowl features a central six-pointed star with intertwined sides surrounded by stylized flowers and smaller motifs — in effect, minimal decoration applied only to the interior of the vessel. The bowl belongs to a group of objects associated with the metalwork production of the eastern Islamic world, characterized by a preference for open forms, the use of engraved or punched decorative motifs, and a silver color.
These features are the result of the alloy used in the casting, called high-tin bronze, also known in the Islamic tradition as "white bronze" (safid ruy). The minimal decorative repertoire found here is partly the result of the medium’s limitations. The high percentage of tin in the alloy produced a shiny and highly malleable metal. As a result, traditional working methods such as hammering were not adaptable to high-tin bronze, and artisans instead used chasing, engraving, and punching, as seen on this example.
The production of this alloy is first mentioned by the eleventh-century scholar al-Biruni, who documents the causes that presumably led to its introduction. Following a Qur’anic prohibition, the Umayyad governor of Iraq and Iran al-Hajjaj (r. 694–714) outlawed gold and silver vessels, the use of which had been popular in the Middle East since pre-Islamic times. Although high-tin bronzes predate this prohibition, their precious appearance did make them an appealing substitute for gold and silver vessels, satisfying the taste for luxury objects while adhering to the governor’s new decree. In addition, the tin component of the alloy prevents the high-tin vessels from developing the poisonous green patina known as verdigris, thus in part accounting for the popularity and longevity of the technique.
Although the production of high-tin bronze peaked in medieval Iran, the metal was in use in India from the third century A.D. as well as in China, before being adopted under the Parthian Empire (238 B.C.–226 A.D.) in Sistan and Sogdiana. Hence, Muslim craftsmen rehabilitated an old technology in order to meet new requirements.
Francesca Leoni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Two related high-tin bowls can be found in the Metropolitan’s collection, one with figural decoration (acc. no. 1971.42) and one with geometric designs (acc. no. 1973.338.8).
2. al-Biruni. Kitab al-jamahir fi ma‘rifat al-jawahir. Edited by F[ritz] Krenkow. Hyderabad, 1936, esp. pp. 264–66; Nasir al-Din Tusi 1969, p. 228, quoted in Allan et al. 1979, pp. 47ff.; al-Kashani 1966, quoted in Allan et al. 1979, pp. 47ff.
3. Ward 1993, p. 30.
Ward, Rachel. Islamic Metalwork. London: British Museum Press, 1993.
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. 84, pp. 128-129, ill. p. 128 (color).