Lustre bowl with a sun motif
National Museum of Aleppo, Islamic Department
Hegira early 7th century / AD early 13th century
Fritware with dark-brown lustre decoration on transparent glaze with a strong greenish tinge.
Height 14.1 cm, diameter 41.5 cm
Qal'at Ja'bar, Raqqa, Syria.
A large dark-brown lustre bowl from Qal'at Ja'bar, which is a particularly remarkable example of so-called Raqqa-ware. It was uncovered in the 1973/4 archaeological excavations by the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities within the medieval fortress of Qal'at Ja'bar on the left bank of the Middle Euphrates, thus making it one of the few pieces that reached the Museum not via the art market but from a particular archaeological site.
The decoration of this piece is highly original: it is dominated by an impressive sun with a female face, almond-shaped eyes, beauty marks on the cheeks and loosely curled hair. The solar-shaped face is framed by two halos of radiating rays which cover the central surface of the bowl.
The astrological sign of the sun is a common iconographic motif on contemporary metalwork where it is usually surrounded by the planets and signs of the zodiac forming a cosmic circle. On medieval Syrian pottery, however, such a depiction is unique. Interestingly enough, the potter replaced the circle of planets with eight medallion-like ornaments – alternating red-on-white vegetal motifs with white-on-red lunar cartouches. This must be a specific “Raqqa” variation on the metalwork theme. The rim of the bowl is freely painted with dotted and curvilinear motifs that are regularly punctuated by a pair of vertical lines, a feature echoing calligraphic decoration.
The dish belongs to the rare group of lustre-painted pieces with figurative decoration. Its shallow shape with convex profile, flat, everted rim and flaring foot is standard and particularly popular with lustre-wares. Its exterior is undecorated. The greenish transparent glaze covers only the top two-thirds of the vessel in typical Raqqa manner.
This Raqqa-ware was found during excavations at the Ayyubid fortress Qal'at Ja'bar. Decorated in characteristic brown metallic lustre, the dish portrays a radiating sun with feminine facial features and jewellery. Planetary symbols were a common feature on Islamic luxury items, particularly on inlaid metalwork, more rarely on ceramics.
Stylistic considerations and archaeological excavation point to the region of Raqqa in which the production of lustre-painted pottery flourished during the 6th / 12th century up until the Mongol invasion of 655–6 / 1258–9.
The bowl was uncovered during archaeological excavations led by the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities in 1973/4.
It is unlikely that the bowl was made in situ, although archaeological excavations have recently uncovered evidence of fritware production in Qal'at Ja'bar. Rather, the high quality of the piece points to a manufacture in a more specialised centre, most likely in one of the thriving pottery workshops in nearby Raqqa.
Land des Baal Syrien, exhibition catalogue, Berlin, 1982, p.279 ; cat. no. 255.
Au pays de Baal et d'Astarté: 10000 ans d'art en Syrie, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1983, p.304; cat. no. 355.
Tonghini, C., Qal'at Dja'bar Pottery: A Study of a Syrian Fortified Site of the Late 11th-14th Centuries, London, 1998.
Julia Gonnella "Lustre bowl with a sun motif" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2017. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;sy;Mus01_A;47;en
Prepared by: Julia Gonnella
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 79