Plucked from Two Trees: An investigation into the Far Eastern influence on Persian luster and mina’i wares from both a cross-cultural and gendered perspective

Tina Do Kyung Lee will be graduating from Concordia University this spring with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History. As the recipient of a full scholarship from the Commonwealth Commission in the United Kingdom, she will commence a Master’s degree in Art and Archaeology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies this fall. In preparation for her Master’s thesis, Ms. Lee completed an independent study under the supervision of Dr. Elaine Paterson. Her topic addressed the cultural and ritualistic significance of the gourd in both the high arts and folk arts of Korea.

The topic for this case study originated from a desire to trace the Chinese influence on Persian lustre ware while also addressing the representation of gender in Islamic ceramic art. Focusing specifically on pottery from the Seljuk period (1037-1300 C.E.), my investigation encountered the subtle complexities underlying a study of this kind. This is to say, any attempt to pinpoint Chinese characteristics within Seljuk pottery risks simplifying the intricate history of Persian ceramics. More accurately, the features of Seljuk pottery as a whole resulted from a slowly evolving process beginning much earlier than the eleventh century arrival of the Seljuk Turks to Islam.

While the Asiatic physiognomies of the painted figures on Seljuk lustre ware appear to coincide with the arrival of the Seljuks, it is reductive to refer to the imported decorative motifs in Seljuk pottery as “Chinese.” By the time such motifs appeared in Seljuk pottery, they already formed part of a varied and localized vocabulary. This essay maintains its original course in the sense that it addresses the stages of cultural cross-pollination between Islam and the Far East both during and before the Seljuk period. The deviation occurs in the underlying purpose of my discussion on specific ceramic objects from the Seljuk period. While acknowledging and attempting to clarify the Chinese influence on Islamic pottery, the following discussion purposefully demonstrates the rich, dialectical identities presented in Seljuk pottery.

A map from Ceramics of the Islamic World illustrates the geographic proximity between the Islamic world and the Far East (Fig. 1). The Seljuks, who would eventually take over Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were a Turkish tribe originating from Central Asia [1]. With regards to Islamic Pottery and the Far East, we can divide the subject into three main periods, all of which were instigated by recurring waves of Chinese influence [2]. Keeping in mind the dates of the Seljuk Empire (1037 to 1300 C.E.), this

touches upon the first two periods. The first or early period occurs from the ninth to the eleventh-century and was inspired by the importation of white porcelains and stonewares from China’s T’ang dynasty [3]. The second, or medieval, period takes place between the twelfth to the fourteenth-century and is said to have been influenced by the white wares of the Sung dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) [4].

While the dates for the T’ang dynasty (618-906 C.E.) predate those of the Seljuk period, this dynasty is worth noting since it mar ks a greater influx of Chinese ceramics being exported into the Islamic Near East [5]. While the invention of porcelain during T’ang times is considered to represent the influential achievement of T’ang pottery, the appearance of foreign figures in T’ang ceramics is of greater relevance to the present discussion on later Seljuk pottery. Like the noticeably Asiatic faces which appear in the lustre wares of Kashan (Fig. 2), people of non-Chinese descent appear regularly in the work of T’ang potters. Excavations of important tombs have unearthed groups of painted earthenware figurines modeled after Central Asian musicians and dancers [6] (Fig. 3). Servants and retainers bearing foreign, and often caricatured, features were also represented by T’ang ceramists [7] (Fig. 4). The presence of such racial variety testifies to the level of interaction between the Far East and its surrounding geography.

With regards to the Sung dynasty and its influence on Seljuk pottery, the most direct correspondence is apparent in the Seljuk potters’ imitation of Sung white porcelain or Ting ware (Fig. 5). Persian potters supposedly began imitating Ting ware during the twelfth century. Although the Persian craftsmen never managed to duplicate Ting porcelain, the Seljuks did manage to produce a successful imitation called “white ware” (Fig. 6). The result was a material possessing not only the overall effect of porcelain but a quality unique unto itself with its delicate perforations, sheer glazes, and elegant shape [8]. The point of Seljuk “white ware” is important for it highlights the manner in which Seljuk pottery absorbed a foreign influence and came to articulate it as its own. The same process would occur in the decorative aspects of Persian lustre and mina’i wares.

What is striking about Seljuk lustre ware is not only the general format in which human figures appear—painted and two-dimensional on the bases of bowls and dishes—but the standardized features of such figures. Whereas in earlier Chinese pottery (Figs. 3 & 4), there is a greater variety of physiognomies represented, those depicted in Seljuk lustre wares tend to appear consistently Asiatic (Figs. 2 & 7). What accounts for this uniformity might be assumed to lie with the physical appearance of the Seljuks themselves. One’s sense of a Seljuk Turk’s physical appearance might be observed in the figurative representations of that time, such as that observed in a fragment from a stucco wall relief from Iran (Fig. 8) dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century and depicts the head of a Seljuk prince. The physiognomy of the face is striking as it betrays our contemporary notions of an Islamic prince’s physical appearance. Yet without knowing for certain whether this relief is in fact a portrait of the actual prince, it is impossible to conclude that this image is faithfully reproduces the true likeness of Seljuk royalty from that time [9]. What remains conspicuous, however, is that the facial features observed in this fragment – the round face, small mouth, and the almond shaped eyes—were hardly new to Islam.

Such features actually appear much earlier in pre-Islamic Persia and the ceramics produced under the Seljuks. Also, if we compare the noses between the stucco fragment and the painted figures from figs. 2 and 7the long, straight noses of the latter examples are not commensurate with the rounded contours of the former. Perhaps the figures represented on Persian lustre wares were, in fact, not representative of how the Seljuks actually looked. There is reason to believe that Seljuk potters had adopted, rather than introduced, the Asiatic style of Persian figure painting to ceramics. The beginnings of this “traditional” style may trace as far back as the eighth-century, or even much earlier, when the Chinese occupied nearby Transoxania [10] (fig. 9). Upon the overthrow and seizure of the Chinese by the Persian Abbasids in 751 C.E., Far Eastern influences on Near and Middle Eastern cultures became all the more pervasive [11].

On the topic of Seljuk fine wares, there are a total of seven classified types [12].  Of the seven, this paper focuses on lustre and mina’i wares. Seljuk lustre ware is purported to have been produced in a range of centres. Among those are the Iranian cities of Kashan, Rayy, Sava and Jurjan [13]. Currently, Kashan is the only city that has been archaeologically verified as a vital producer of lustre ware [14]. With the advent of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, current historians are relegated to existing archaeological findings. Bearing this in mind, an absence of available evidence may not automatically infer an absence of ceramic production in areas like Jurjan. Despite the lack of substantiated corroboration for the other cities, each centre is said to have possessed its own characteristics [15].

For instance, when comparing the features of Rayy lustre ware (Fig. 7) with Kashan lustre ware (Fig. 2), obvious differences can be discerned. Compared with fig. 2, the lustre-painted bowl from Rayy differs in the larger, more monumental composition of its painted figures. This aspect is typical of the “Rayy monumental style” [16]. Unlike the figures represented in the bowl from Kashan, the two figures from fig. 3 are boldly outlined in lustre and fill up the entire field of the bowl’s base. Despite the large scale of the figures, there is still enough room in reserve between and around them compared to the crowded all-over patterning of the Kashan example. Overall, the Rayy design possesses a bold, rhythmic and spontaneous spirit. Although Oliver Watson contends that the boldness of the lustre outlines around each figure is detrimental to the design – “striking though [such] pieces are, the technique is clumsy, as the unsubtle bands detract from the fine drawing and make the figures sit like paper cut-outs on an unrelated ground” [17] – it may prove more useful to appreciate the Rayy example on its own terms. While later Kashan designs reflect a greater degree of control in their execution, it is precisely this control that robs them of the same dynamism observed in the so-called “transitional” Rayy monumental style. It is also worth mentioning that the style is said to be derived from Egyptian sources [18]. This point is worth mentioning since the objects we refer to as Persian lustre ware only acquired their final form from a combination of both nearby and distant influences.

The Kashan example is consistent with the main characteristics of the style as pointed out by Watson. In other words, the design is far more refined and delicate in its execution. In the example of fig. 2, there are a total of thirteen figures represented, compared to the two from the previous example. The crowded assembly of the figures is echoed in the density of their fine details. All available space, both outside and inside the figures, is filled with minute ornamentation. The dark contours outlining the figures in the Rayy bowl are replaced here with an absence of linear division between the figures. The elaborate interior detailing of the assembled figures causes them to blend almost seamlessly into each other. Also, a discernible hierarchy is evident in the presentation of the figures in the Kashan bowl. The figure in the centre is not only the largest in size but his mature beard refers to his masculine gender. The figures which surround him, appear softer and effeminate in their clothing and facial expressions. These figures are also lacking in facial hair. Also noticeable is the absence of interaction between this central figure and the ones that surround him. This is quite a contrast compared to the previous example where the two figures of apparently opposite genders directly face one another. In terms of composition, a possible template for the arrangement of figures in the Kashan example may be referenced to the findings of an altar excavated from a cave in Dunhuang, China (Fig. 10). Although the general arrangement of three-dimensional figures in the altar appears sparse in comparison to the arrangement of the painted figures in the Kashan bowl, a closer look shows that the altar is indeed quite crowded and surrounded from all angles of the space. More important, however, is the Buddhist connection to which I now draw our attention.

Despite their differences in design, an element that is common between the Rayy and Kashan wares is their overriding spiritual quality. In both pieces, the figures appear to float in a timeless vacuum. The most obvious similarity between the two designs is the physiognomy of the painted figures. A number of hypotheses are possible as to who exactly the figures represent and why they look the way they do. It could be conjectured that the figures were drawn in the likeness of particular people such as the presiding rulers or members of the aristocracy. However, it is more reasonable to assume that the figures are not meant to be portraits since the tradition of portraiture had yet to assert itself in the Orient. Moreover, the faces are all too lacking in individuality to represent actual people. The pervasiveness of such figures and their distinct features in Seljuk pottery attests to the need for a farther reaching explanation.

When taking into account the proximity of Central Asia to China and the historic ebb and flow of cultural influence between the two regions, it is not unreasonable to link the historic presence of the Asiatic facial type in Islamic art to Iran’s Buddhist past. As suggested by Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, the Iranian artist has, throughout history, concentrated on providing visual presence to abstract, mental ideas rather than attempting to copy nature in a realistic fashion [19]. Therefore, the facial type in question should be approached as a kind of idealized archetype. This would account for the lack of individuality in the figures from fig 2 . According to Melikian-Chirvani, “So it was that a facial type born within a definite religious context and later well-suited to the abstract mental form celebrated by poets, came to be cultivated for centuries by people who never came near it” [20] It is fascinating that the pottery produced at the time of Islam would owe an historic portion of its cultural symbolism to an entirely different religion. Also fascinating is the movement of Buddhist iconography as it began in a northward, then eastward, direction through Central Asia to East Asia, only to move westwards from China, back to Central Asia and Eastern Iran [21]. Shermon Lee has referred to this phenomenon as “backfire” [22]

Hence, the faces we observe in Seljuk pottery are better understood if we approach them as part of an array of sustained and symbolic models rather than immediate and concrete representations. This would greatly explain why Iranian art, despite having absorbed the Buddhist heritage, would not have attempted to give its newfound tradition “any specific Islamic flavour” [23]. Foreign aesthetic motifs were adopted as such and harmonized with Islam. As a result, the essential features appearing in the figures of Seljuk pottery remained unchanged well into the middle of the thirteenth century [24]. Melikian-Chirvani argues that “this long life need not surprise us within the highly conservative art of Iran where iconography evolved slowly and gradually” [25]. Also, for the practical purposes of sustaining their empire and enabling their facilitated assimilation into Islam, the Seljuks likely adopted the tropes of Persian Buddhist culture with little resistance.

Along with the recurring Asiatic features, the popularity of a particular seated position figured in much of Seljuk lustre ware may also owe its origins to Persia’s Buddhist past. Many examples of this pose are illustrated in both the Kashan lustre and mina’i wares (recall figs. 2 & 7; see figs. 10 & 11). In all four examples, the figures are shown in a cross-legged position with their feet nestled on their thighs. This particular pose is consistent with that observed in early Buddhist statuary (Figs. 12 & 13). Anyone even basically familiar with Buddhism can immediately recognize this pose as the lotus-position.

Of course, there are differences between the Buddhist examples and those of the Seljuks. Of these, the most discernible lies in the variety of hand gestures in the Seljuk examples. This difference may again point to the manner in which the standardized archetype of the Asiatic physiognomy was slowly modified through less conspicuous details like hand gestures. The hands of the Buddhist models are free of any objects. Both hands are either placed on the lap or the right hand is raised in a blessing gesture. In fig. 7, the central figure raises a cup in his right hand while his left hand holds a sword. In fig. 2, the central figure has his left hand raised and angled towards his right. Similar to fig. 12, the seated man in fig. 7 also holds a cup, but in this example he holds it with his left hand. The hands of the seated figure on a mina’i ewer are free of any objects but his hands appear to rest on his hips. The gesture is more assertive than meditative. Common to all the examples is the frontality of the seated poses and the apparent superiority of the central figure in relation to the standing attendants. While the attendants seated below the central, frontally positioned figure in fig. 12 are also seated in the lotus-position, they are angled sideways.

The exact positioning of every figure may be symbolic to his/her status. As corroborated by Grace D. Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, images of enthroned rulers, that is, either kings or princes, on Kashan luster wares are depicted both frontally and “in majesty” [26]. By the phrase “in majesty,” Guest and Ettinghausen refer to the large halo that outlines the central figure’s head. In the case of our examples, the halo is of Buddhist, rather than Christian, origin. Moreover, among Seljuk luster wares, the halo appears to have shed its religious meaning and, instead, has become an aesthetic convention. The same halo is observed in the surrounding attendants as well as all other examples of figural representations we have seen thus far. For instance, if we observe the seated figure from fig. 11, s/he does not appear enthroned (see also fig. 15). Yet the figure’s head is nevertheless surrounded by a halo. The figure is also depicted frontally. Furthermore, the gender of this figure is a matter of debate.

According to Fehérvári, the figure is female [27]. There are indeed signs to suggest Fehérvári’s assessment is correct. The figure’s head is noticeably beardless and slightly angled to the right. Neither does the figure hold any of the props affiliated with royalty (fig. 12). Still, I would argue that there are no clear signs to plainly identify the figure as either male or female. Furthermore, if we consider the sleeping figure from a famous Kashan plate (Fig. 16) to the figure on the ewer, little difference between the two can be discerned besides their settings. Yet the theory put forth by Kühnel, that the sleeping figure on the Kashan plate represents Prince Khosrow, the hero in a famous poem by the twelfth century Azerbaijani poet, Nizami, has long been accepted [28]. Kühnel’s reading of the sleeping figure, while grounded in an extensive knowledge of Persian literature, remains a hypothesis. The exact identity and gender of the sleeping figure are inevitably fated to evade any firm conclusions. Ultimately, what is important is the range of possible meanings we can extrapolate from the ambiguity underlying these painted figures.

The sustained Buddhist aesthetic in Persian art may also help to explain the recurring androgyny among the painted figures in thirteenth-century Islamic pottery. As already discussed, the figures depicted in the lustre wares from the Seljuk period not only demonstrate types rather than individuals but any clear signs denoting gender. For instance, in the large lustre tray from the early thirteenth-century (fig. 12), an enthroned monarch or prince is depicted surrounded by an assembly of courtiers and attendants [29]. Of the twenty-six courtiers, it is assumed that the figures seated in the front row are female [30]. This is likely due to their seated positions below the bearded monarch. With respect to the standing figures, our reading into their genders is guided by even fewer clues. Their physiognomies, after all, are identical to those of the seated figures in the front row. Established ideals regarding beauty, set forth much earlier on in Persian poetry, can help clarify this androgyny. According to Melikian-Chirvani, “only one facial type is known to the Persian poet, be it man or woman. Rounded like the full-moon, pink as a rose with a tiny cornelian mouth and almond-like eyes, the perfectly arched eyebrows high above the eyes, it is called the moon-face or mahruy” [31]. The reference to early Persian poetry is substantive since it demonstrates the impact of Buddhist art on Iranian culture [32].

With respect to ascribing gender to the figures we find in Seljuk pottery, any assumptions we may have as to the gender of the figures are precisely that, assumptions. In terms of the variety of roles and situations thirteenth century Persian women (and men) may have found themselves in, the mahruy challenges our contemporary approach to discerning gender. This challenge is further corroborated by two lustre painted bowls from the early thirteenth century. The first bowl (Fig. 17) is described by Fehérvári as depicting “a galloping horseman” [33]. Another bowl (Fig. 18) bears a similar decoration, this time with “two horsemen meeting at a tree” [34]. If we accept Melikian-Chirvani’s argument that such figures are meant to embody archetypal ideals that transend gendered differences, we can perhaps embrace the possibility that the galloping horsemen could just as easily be galloping horsewomen. Whatever the case may be, the illustrations are compelling precisely because they represent ideals which defy concrete gendered categorizations.

The direct fusion between poetry and ceramic art and the resulting impact on gender are also observed in various examples of Persian mina’i ware. The term “mina’i” literally means “enamel” and is used to refer to a category of overglaze painted wares [35]. Visually speaking, the main difference between mina’i and lustre wares is their colour range. Whereas with lustre ware, backgrounds are worked with a dark brown or yellow glaze, “thus leaving the space open for the decoration in reserve” [36], the mina’i technique employs a variety of colours, i.e., blue, green, brown, black, dull red, white and gold, to paint over an opaque white or, sometimes turquoise, underglaze [37]. The effect is much more colourful and very similar to that of miniature painting. The best examples of mina’i painting are said to have been done by artists also renowned for illuminating manuscripts [38]. This would support the predominantly figurative style and subject matter of mina’i wares [39]. The close relationship between mina’i ware and manuscript painting is particularly evident in a mina’i bowl from the thirteenth century (Fig. 19).

The scope of the painted subject matter and its execution in fig. 19 is beyond anything observed in our previous examples. The illustration depicts “an elaborate battle scene showing the siege of a city by a large army led by a cavalcade of horsemen” [40]. Whereas the figures in the various lustre wares observed earlier were contained well within their decorative borders, the figures here are dispersed throughout the entire space of the mina’i bowl. The entire surface of the bowl is used to its maximum capacity as the figures are depicted climbing up the bowl’s interior walls while others appear on the brink of spilling off the rim. While the two sides of the battle appear divided between the cap wearing horse-riders on the right and the horseless and hatless defenders on the left, the essential physiognomies of the two camps are indistinguishable. The same can be said for the genders among many of the figures depicted without a beard. We should not rule out that women may have taken part in this battle, be it based on fact or myth. The beardless and seated archers in the tower, as well as the horse-riders, can be read as women. Again, while a conclusive reading is impossible, such artifacts speak to the possibility of a range of women’s roles as active subjects in Islamic art [41].

While mina’i wares also depict court scenes with enthroned monarchs and surrounding attendants, one particular mina’i bowl from Kashan is especially interesting in terms of its visual similarities with the Freer Gallery Kashan plate (Fig. 20). Common to both wares is the pond motif in the lower area as well as the central position of the horse, the simplified vegetation, and the curious arrangement of the haloed, Asiatic figures. Considering that the mina’i bowl occurs a century earlier than the Kashan lustre plate, we can compare the two to assess the gradual changes in design within the same city.

The reappearance of the pool of water at the lower level of the lustre plate highlights the symbolic significance underlying such a motif. As pointed out by Guest and Ettinghausen, when one considers the arid topography of Iran, it comes as little surprise that water would figure so repeatedly in Persian pottery painting [42]. At the same time, it is possible that the inclusion of a pond in the painted scenes of thirteenth-century pottery had become a conventional motif used for the sole purpose of filling in the lower section of a roundel [43]. While the placement of the pool of water may have become a convention, the placement of the nude figure in the pond shows how later pottery painters employed this convention for a new purpose. The pond is not only teeming with more fish but it is now used as an effective and active narrative space. Furthermore, whereas the stunted blades of grass in the mina’i bowl merely suggested a fertile landscape, the plant motif in the lustre plate is not only more prominent but noticeably decorative in its application.

When compared with each other, the figures on the mina’i bowl mirror their Sino-Buddhist models far less than the figures in the lustre plate. Unlike the Kashan examples where the figures don Turkish braids, the mina’i figures don shoulder length hair that freely frames their faces. These figures appear closer to representing people in real life than the idealized, archetypal figures on the lustre plate. Whereas the poses and clothing worn by the figures on the mina’i bowl recall the ceramic figures from China’s Han or early Six Dynasties period (Fig. 21) [44], the clothing worn by the figures on the lustre plate are much more decorative and consistent with other lustre paintings. In this way, the lustre examples express a refined and established canon in figurative pottery painting whereas the mina’i paintings express a comparatively straightforward and unrestrained sensibility.

The vocabulary of Islamic pottery painting is rich in its variety and history. Even within one area of Near Eastern ceramics, lustre and mina’i ware, a number of discoveries, contradictions, challenges and enduring questions have surfaced. With the arrival of the Seljuks to Islam came the introduction of new identities as well as a continuation of those formed earlier on. In the midst of the West’s enduring confusions and tinted views on the topic of Islam, the overlapping of histories, geographies and cultures as a regular topic of study and discussion is needed now more than ever. Hence, continued investigations into Seljuk lustre wares and other historic and cross-cultural decorative objects are necessary for both the aesthetic inspiration they provide and their ability to inform us of our collective past.

List of Illustrations


1. Marie G. Luken, Islamic Art, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965), 7.
2. Géza Fehérvári, “The Lands of Islam,” World Ceramics, edited by Robert J. Charleston. (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), 70.
3. Fehérvári, 70.
4. Fehérvári, 70.
5. Fehérvári, 42.
6. Fehérvári, 48.
7. Fehérvári, 48.
8. Fehérvári, 82.
9. Luken, 7.
10. Fehérvári, 73.
11. Fehérvári, 73.
12. Fehérvári, 82.
13. Alan Caiger-Smith, Lustre Pottery (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 59.
14. Caiger-Smith, 59.
15. Luken, 10.
16. Watson describes the three major styles as the “Rayy monumental,” the “Rayy miniature,” and the “Kashan.” See Oliver Watson, Persian Lustre Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 38.
17. Watson, 86.
18. Watson, 86.
19. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, “The Buddhist Heritage in the Art of Iran,” Mahayanist Art After A.D. 900 (London: University of London, 1972), 63.
20. Melikian-Chirvani, 63.
21. Sherman E. Lee, A History of Far Eastern Art, 5th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 155.
22. Lee, 155.
23. Lee, 56.
24. Lee, 56.
25. Melikian-Chirvani, 63.
26. Grace D. Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, “The Iconography of a Kashan Plate,” Ars Orientalis 4 (1961): 38.
27. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World, 128.
28. Guest and Ettinghausen: 25.
29. Fehérvári, 115.
30. Fehérvári, 115.
31. Melikian-Chirvani, 60.
32. Melikian-Chirvani, 60.
33. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2000), 118.
34. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World, 118.
35. Fehérvári, World Ceramics, 85.
36. Fehérvári, 82.
37. Fehérvári, 85.
38. Fehérvári, 85.
39. Ernst J. Grube, The World of Islam, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), 73.
40. Grube, 73.
41. Walter B. Denny, “Women and Islamic Art,” Women, Religion and Social Change, edited by Yvonne Y. Haddad. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), 177.
42. Guest and Ettinghausen: 31.
43. Guest and Ettinghausen: 31.
44. John Ayers, The Seligman Collection of Oriental Art, Vol. II (London: Lund Humphries, 1964), 32.