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Lustre produced colours ranging from a golden tone to reddish-brown and even green. Lustre persisted for centuries and over time there was variety not only in the objects using it, but also in the use of the technique itself.
In Iran, lustre ware was a luxury item and therefore helps us to understand the technical abilities and advances of the cultures using it at different times. As we do not know a huge amount about how the objects were used in their original context, we can look closely at the objects themselves for clues. Over time the technique changed and the audience changed too. The changes in taste are reflected in how the objects changed. The breadth in both the types of lustre ware and the technique are introduced to you below.
The lustre in these tiles covers a broad area, as you can see. To create the garden-themed designs the lustre glaze was applied to the tiles and the design was scratched out. Looking closely at the tiles, you can see the difference between the inscription, which was painted on, and the floral motifs. Small swirls are also etched out of the main lustred surface. In using this technique, a rich sheen is created across most of the surface of the tile, where the flowers and leaves stand out in the white glaze against the lustre.
We know from 19th century written records that star and cruciform wall tiles were typically used to decorate interior walls. They would likely be found beneath the dado level in religious buildings or shrines. The star and cross shapes fit together in a grid, as you can see from the example animation.
These particular tiles were purchased by the museum in 1889 from a French dealer in Iran and their origins are from Veramin in the Tehran province.
Second half of the thirteenth century.
The National Museum of Scotland has a number of tiles from this site in the collection, some of which were acquired directly from local dealers in the nineteenth century and others through acquisitions in Europe.
You can see some of the tiles in the Patterns of Life gallery at the museum.
Unlike the tiles which were often in situ on walls before being acquired by European collectors and museums, objects such as ewers, bottles and bowls were often found during archaeological excavations and were therefore in varying states of preservation. The lustre on the exterior of this ewer consists of the richly hued metallic golden-brown against an opaque white glaze and is in a good state of preservation.
The decoration of the ewer is in bands with script, curvilinear, animal and plant designs. The main band uses the same technique of glazing in reserve to depict leaping animals surrounded by vegetal swirls and leaves. However, as you can see from the images, sections of the jug are plain white with no lustre. This is because the jug was reconstructed from shards and some pieces of the original are missing. The plain white sections show the ceramic which was used to help put the shards back together and is filling in the gaps where the missing shards would go.
Although we cannot be certain how the ewer was used by its owner, it may have had a practical use for containing liquids or it may simply have been an ornamental piece.
As you see from the above examples, text was a consistent component of Iranian lustre ware. The Naskh lettering around this tile is an extract from the Qu'ran. It begins at the end of Sura 3 (al-Imran), verse 17, and concludes part-way through verse 18. It roughly translates as: “…except He, the Mighty, the Wise. Religion with God is Islam. Those to whom the Scripture was given differed only after knowledge came to them…” The allusion to the transition from life to afterlife in the text supports the idea of the tile being part of a tombstone or shrine niche.
Unlike the earlier examples, this tile is in relief, with raised blue Naskh letters around the outside and a raised flower design at its centre. The lustre is visible in the background of the raised flowers and script which stand out by their cobalt blue and turquoise glaze respectively. The lustre here is not the main feature but additional decoration to, primarily, the important verses from the Qu’ran.
The two circular recesses of the tile are unglazed, likely because they had objects affixed there in the past which have been lost. These may have been coloured glass orbs. This type of feature was a normal inclusion in these tiles.
During subsequent centuries we can see how tastes changed by examining work such as this bowl. Like the tombstone, this bowl uses cobalt blue glaze in combination with lustre. In contrast to it, the outside of this bowl is entirely glazed blue atop the lustre, instead of lustre on the top surface. The inside of the bowl is reminiscent of the earlier examples in its monochrome garden design in lustre against white, visible despite significant wear over time. The very different use of colour in this bowl's exterior suggests that the makers were experimenting with different techniques, perhaps to take advantage of new fashions among their ever-evolving audience.
These objects tell the story of a decorative technique in ceramics which had a lasting legacy. Their striking nature and the technical skill required of their makers helped them to receive acclaim, remaining popular for centuries. Lustre was used for many different types of objects, examples of which are discussed here, and the style changed with the times. Although the collection at the National Museum of Scotland is broad, it largely reflects the nineteenth century interest for antiquities and therefore most of the pieces are from earlier periods. Pieces in other museums suggest that the interest in creating lustre ware continued into the nineteenth century. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has examples of works from this later period, including items which were copies of earlier pieces. These examples show that although their techniques varied, they retained knowledge of historic processes and were able to reproduce them if they so desired.