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B A R A K A 0 B L E S S

mankind
out of clay.
The use of the
pen is an attribute
of God, and the ability
to understand writing sepa-
rates mankind from the rest of
Words creation: "And thy Lord is the Most
and clay form Generous, who taught by the pen, taught
a natural pairing in the arts of Islamic lands. Man what he did not know" (Qur'an 96:4-5).
Writing and clay are primordial agents in Writing and clay hold a preeminent place in
Muslim traditions concerning the Creation; traditional Islamic cosmology. The physical
the first thing God created was the pen, which world and all that happens in it flow from
He then commanded to write everything God's creative employ-ment of words and clay.
that would be until the Day of Judgment. On What we broadly call "Islamic art" is a com-
Saturday, the first day, God created clay,from plex visual tradition that developed largely
which He fashioned the earth on Sunday. On in response to words - specifically, the words
Friday, the last day of Creation, God shaped of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad
I N G S I N C L A Y

(570-632). OPPOSITE:
The divine Fig. i. Small
bowl with deer and
revelation,
known as the
W inscriptions: "blessing"
(baraka) Iraq (Basra),ninth
Qur'an, came in oral "century.Earthenwarewith luster
form: it was spoken paintingover opaque tin glaze (5.6 x
by the angel Gabriel to r6.2 cm). 2002.50,71.

Muhammad, who memorized it and


recited it to his followers, who also memo-
W bara-
ka, or bless-
THIS PAGE: Fig. 2. Bowl with inscrip-
tion and birds. EasternIran(Nishapur)
or Uzbekistan (Samarkand),late ninth
rized it. Muhammad was the perfect vessel to ing power, and because Arabic letters were - tenth century. Earthenwarewith
receive God's word, for he is said to have been used to record, preserve, and disseminate the painting in slip underglaze (5.9 X20.7
unlettered, hence uncontaminated by literary word of God, they too came to partake of this cm). 2002.50.92. Both bowlsfrom
HarvardUniversity Art Museums,
traditions. spiritual force. To write the words of God The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection
Not long after Muhammad's death in 632, beautifully was an act of worship that con- ofIslamic Art. Photographscourtesy
his followers set the Qur'an in writing. In a veyed blessings and forgiveness to the believ- ofPresident and Fellows ofiHarvard
sense, this pivotal action created Islamic art. er. In a culture that fused aesthetics and piety, College.
Because of its divine origin, the text of the the quality of one's writing was considered a
Qur'an is obviously charged with a certain reflection of one's soul.
RIGHT: Fig. 3. Large bowl with
two inscriptions:"Modesty is a branch
offaith, andfaith is in Paradise."(black)
"Greedis a sign ofpoverty. Peace."
(red). Uzbekistan (Samarkand),late
ninth - tenth century. Earthenware
with painting in slip underglaze
(9.6 X 26.9 cm). 2002.5o.88

OPPOSITE PAGE: Fig. 4. Plaquein the


shape of a mihrab with inscription:
"Say,He is God, the One, the Only
God, the Eternal,the Absolute. He
begetteth no4 nor is he begotten. And
there is none like unto Him." (Qur'an,
12). Iran, late i i oos. Fritware,
molded with turquoise glaze. (3.97 x
25.72 cm). HaruardUniversity Art
Museums. Gift ofFrancisLee Friedman.
1955.89. Photographscourtesy of
Presidentand Fellows ofHarvard
college.

Arabic script became the most revered with a fat-tailed deer in FIGURE i is an example
visual art form in Islamic culture, its presence of these wares. It was made in the town of
alone evoking the faith. Non-Semitic lan- Basra, in southwestern Iraq, sometime in the
guages, such as Turkish and Persian, adopted ninth century, at a time when the capital city
its graphemes. Over the centuries, Muslim of the Abbasid empire (750-12 58) was just
calligraphers strove to improve the legibility, up the Tigris River in Samarra. Appearing
beauty, and expressiveness of the script. Proof in front of and below the deer is the Arabic
of their success is the omnipresence of Arabic word barakca or "blessing." There is a curious
script in Islamic art, appearing in all lands, all harmony between the lean legs of the deer
centuries, and all media. and the wiry writing. Letters and legs are
Potters have long been among the most about the same thickness and, because Arabic
accomplished and prolific of Muslim artists. is written from right to left, both terminate in
Although largely anonymous, the history triangular "hooves."
of Islamic ceramics is one of inexhaustible This small bowl represents one of the most
creativity and continual experimentation, influential innovations of the Basra potters:
driven by a delight in colorful surface deco- luster painting. Inspired by white-bodied
ration. No matter their ethnic or linguistic stonewares appearing from China, Basra pot-
group, Muslim potters have continually ters covered their earthenware vessels with
turned to Arabic script, finding ever-new a tin glaze that turned white upon firing. To
ways to employ its kaleidoscope of forms. Muslim potters, the resulting white surface
Arabic script serves as one of the principal offered a blank sheet awaiting decoration. In
motifs in the earliest Islamic ceramics that simplest terms, the luster technique involved
can be considered luxury wares. The bowl painting powdered metal oxides (usually sil-
17
they created some of the most majestic exam-
ples of Arabic calligraphy in Islamic art. The
large, deep bowl in FIGURE 3 is a superb exam-
ple of the so-called Samanid epigraphic wares.
The two-color inscription is written in an
angular and stately form of script popularly
known as Kufic, which by the Samanid era
had become the preferred script for transcrib-
ing the Qur'an. Except for the central dot in
this bowl, the script is the only ornament. By
exaggerating the horizontal sections of the
letters, the calligrapher has created a balanced
design, carefully distributing the verticals,
which ascend toward the center. By avoiding
symmetry, he has preserved the counterclock-
wise movement of the writing.
Even without knowing the content of
the inscription, the austere power of this
vessel communicates its authority and spiri-
tual force. In fact, the inscription records
sayings attributed to two of the most influen-
tial figures in Islamic history, the Prophet
Muhammad and Ali b. Abi Talib, his son-in-
law and Islam!s fourth orthodox caliph.
The quote from Muhammad holds the rim:
"Modesty is a branch of faith and faith is in
paradise." The quote from Ali is written in
Fig. 5. Bowl with courtly couple and ver and copper, mixed in solution with clay the slender, red letters: "Greed is a sign of
Persian inscriptions.Iran (Kashan), particles) onto a tin-glazed ceramic surface poverty." At the end of this short statement,
ca. 12oo. Fritwarewith lusterpainting that had already been fired once. The second the potter has written an appeal for "Peace."
overglaze and splashes of turquoise
(d. 35.cm). IsabellaStewart Gardner
firing took place at a lower temperature in These inscriptions are extracts from a
Museum, C15w0o. a kiln with a reduced oxygen atmosphere. vast body of knowledge known as Hadithor
When the ceramic was cool, it was buffed Tradition literature, comprised of sayings
with a cloth to reveal an iridescent stain. attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and
Blessings can take many forms: Encircled his early Companions, as well as narratives
by wide-eyed birds, the word barakaholds the of their actions. Assiduously collected and
center of the bowl in FIGURE 2. With its green- catalogued in the decades following the
ish design painted over a white ground, scal- death of the Prophet, Hadith is second only to
loped rim, and prominent inscription, this the Qur'an in sacred authority and spiritual
bowl imitates the luster bowl, with which power. More long-lived than paper or parch-
it is roughly contemporary. But luster tech- ment, pottery vessels such as this bowl pre-
nique was a closely guarded trade secret, so serve the earliest written examples of Hadith.
the potter has painted his birds and inscrip- Easy to break but difficult to get rid of,
tion by different means: using colored clays there is little in this world more durable than
in slip form. The pinkish earthenware body pottery. What, then, could be more natural
was blanketed with a white slip, the design than to fashion out of clay the eternal words
painted in greenish clay, and the whole cov- of God as revealed in the Qur'an? On the
ered by a clear glaze. The bowl with birds bright turquoise plaque in FIGURE 4, the words
was made at the eastern edges of the Abbasid of the I I2th chapter of the Qur'an are mod-
empire, during the reign of the Samanid eled in relief and run around three edges:
dynasty (875-999), whose princely realm "Say, He is God, the One, the Only God, the
included northeastern Iran and Uzbekistan. Eternal, the Absolute. He begetteth not, nor
Slip-painting was only one of the tech- is he begotten. And there is none like unto
niques used by Samanid potters, but with it Him." This short chapter sets out the funda-
mental principles of the unity of God (tawhid),
differentiating Islam from Christianity. The
small plaque is in the shape of a mihrab,the
focal point in a mosque that marks the direc-
tion toward Mecca. It may have been used in a
shrine or mausoleum to indicate the direction
for prayer.
Not all writing on Islamic ceramics is of
a sacred nature, as demonstrated by the large
luster plate made in Iran around the year 1200
(FIGURE 5). On this luxurious plate, Persian
poetry is written in Arabic script, reflecting
the revival of Persian as a literary language
after centuries of Arabic domination. On the
cavetto, the inscription is written in a spidery
script known as naskh in brown luster against
the white ground; on the everted rim, it is
scratched through a band of luster to reveal
the white ground below. The poetry on the
rim expresses the anguished longing of sepa-
rated lovers:

The heart is branded on its soul with


the grief of your love;
Separation from you makes the world
a prison;
The heart that has not the patience for
union with you, Denevoience ot cilvme ongin. Pig. t. blessings and Peace: Desert
Alas that it can suffer through separation. The plate in FIGURE 6 was fashioned in Storm. Wasma'a Chorbachi,7993.
White stoneware, highfire soda glaze,
1993 by an Iraqi-born artist at the Radcliffe
iron oxide, Oribe blue glaze rim,
At the center of the plate is a courtly couple Ceramic Studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. low fire gold luster (d. 35.56 cm).
whose round, haloed faces and Asian features It employs inventive and modern ceramic Cambridge,MA, 1993. Harvard
represent an ideal of physical beauty brought techniques to express a timeless grief. Titled University Art Museums. Purchase
to Iran by the Saljuqs, a Turkic people who Blessings andPeace: DesertStorm, the plate elo- through the generosity ofNeil and
initially arrived in eastern Islamic lands as Angelica Rudenstine, Warren and
quently expresses the artist's anguish caused
Jane Shapleigh and Mrs. Robert B.
mercenaries. Rising to power in 1037 in Iran, by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Newman in honorof James Cuno and
the Saljuqs, and their successors the Atabegs, American response. Its dark brown and tan through the generosity of Corinaand
sponsored a brilliant era for art, literature, and textured surface shimmers with subtle luster DavidSilich von-Schultess, 2003.7.
science that was brought to a sudden close by tints, evoking the fiery haze and scorched
the coming of the Mongols in the 122os. The earth caused by the burning of the oil fields.
widespread destruction caused by the Mongol The horizon is suggested by a string of script
conquests - palaces and libraries burnt, and stretched across the earth. The word baraka
treasuries looted - is blamed for the loss of an is carved into the surface over and again, an
incalculable number of manuscripts. In many appeal not only for God's blessing, but also
instances, the Persian poetry written on a reference to the despoiled blessings of the
ceramic vessels such as this plate has been earth. The endnote, written just below the
preserved nowhere else. horizon, is a plea for peace (salam).
For centuries Muslim potters have carved,
painted, and molded Arabic letters into their
work, endlessly inspired by the script's artistic
potential and the power ascribed to its pres-
ence. Made by Iraqi artists more than a thou-
sand years apart, the vessels in FIGURES 2 and
6 both repeat the word baraka,an appeal for '9
COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

TITLE: Baraka: Blessings in Clay


SOURCE: Studio Potter 35 no2 Summ/Fall 2007

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it


is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in
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