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Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Two: Arabic Script and the Art of Calligraphy/ Featured Works of Art: Images 7–11/ Image 7

Image 7

Bowl with Arabic inscription
10th century
Iran, Nishapur
Earthenware; white slip with black-slip decoration under transparent glaze; H. 7 in. (17.8 cm), Diam. 18 in. (45.7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1965 (65.106.2)

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Calligraphy (kufic script), proverb, secular, Iran, urban class, ceramic

This bowl exemplifies the use of calligraphy as decoration on ceramics, and illustrates the dramatic impact a simple inscription can make.

In addition to its use as a bowl, a ceramic vessel of this quality was a visual indicator of wealth and status. The proverbs featured in the calligraphic decoration on bowls like this are powerful tools for understanding the values and mores of the society in which they were made.

This vessel is made of local earthenware, covered with white slip (semifluid clay), which offers a smooth surface and uniform background for decoration. The brownish black inscriptions encircling the interior of the bowl present a striking contrast. The elongated letters of the text radiate toward the center of the bowl, creating a harmonious relationship between the shape of the vessel and its surface decoration. Written in "new style" script, the letters feature angular shapes and slender vertical shafts. "New style" script was used primarily in the eastern Islamic lands in Qur'ans, architectural decoration, and ceramic vessels.

This vessel was produced in the city of Nishapur, in northeastern Iran, during the tenth century. The bowl belongs to a larger group that includes some of the oldest existing records of proverbs and adages in the Islamic world. The writing on this vessel offers the following advice: "Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well-being"—an appropriate warning given the careful planning needed to ensure the text fit properly around the perimeter of the bowl. The inscriptions on wares unearthed at Nishapur sometimes mention the name of the maker, but hardly ever the name of the patron. Based on the content of the inscriptions, we know that such ceramics were not made for royal patrons, but rather for members of an affluent urban class.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


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Maryam Ekhtiar: I'm Maryam Ekhtiar, senior research associate in the Department of Islamic Art. This wonderful bowl has an inscription in new-style Kufic in black slip on a white ground. It was produced in tenth-century Iran in Nishapur, which had a flourishing ceramic industry at that time. And what's interesting about this is that the writing, which is so elegant and so fluid, is not religious, in fact. You have the elongation the extended letters, but it is readable. It's actually a proverb, which says "Deliberation before action protects you from regret: luck, and well-being."

A lot of Islamic art is characterized by covering overall surfaces with pattern, but there's an attention to minimalism and abstraction, which shows us that abstraction and minimalism is not necessarily a Western innovation and that it occurred in various cultures and in the Near East very early on.