Curator's Corner

Beautiful in Cobalt Blue

By Karl Cole, posted on Aug 15, 2022

Being a painter, I have colors that I consider essential to almost every painting I make. I tend to prefer phthalo and cobalt colors. (Safety note: yes, I always wear gloves when I paint.) One color I particularly like to exploit for gorgeous deep shadows on anything green is cobalt blue. I came across this particularly stunning vessel the other day and simply had to share it.

Glass ewer from Iran (1700s). Cobalt blue ewer form with a flaring mouth and spout decorated with an applied butterfly.
Iran, Ewer, 1700s. Glass, free-blown with applied and pincered decoration, 6 ½" x 3 11/16" (16.5 x 9.3 cm). © 2022 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4937)


The earliest known cobalt blue glass comes from Eridu (present-day Iraq), dating to about 2000 BCE (not blown, of course). Glass blowing was developed in the Syro-Palestinian region around 150 BCE. Due to this technique's invention, blowing quickly spread to neighboring regions, probably reaching Mesopotamia during the first hundred years CE (ca. 1–100 CE).

In Iran, glass that Europeans dubbed “azure” probably contained a cobalt blue component. There are extensive deposits of cobalt in Iran and in regions that Iran controlled. Iran was the chief supplier of cobalt blue from the time of the ancient world to the Middle Ages (ca. 1000–1400) in Europe. Outside of Qamsar, Meskani, and Talmesi, there were deposits near Tehran. From the 1800s to the 1930s, cobalt began was mined in Qom, where this ewer was made.

This form of ewer dates back to the 1500s, seen in illustrations for the Shahnama (Book of Kings) from the Safavid period (ca. 1501–1736). This shape, called aftabeh, was popular for centuries and experienced a revival (particularly as an export item) during the 1700s and 1800s. This form typically features a flaring mouth and spout decorated with an applied butterfly form. The tiny handle of applied cobalt glass may indicate that such vessels were meant for display. The form was traditionally used to hold wine, for sprinkling rosewater, and for ceremonial ablutions.

Cobalt blue glass exported to Europe during the 1800s was called “Safavid.” The Safavid Dynasty, established in 1502, ruled Iran until the first half of the 1700s. Their power waned when Nader Shah (died 1747) forcibly assumed kingship in 1736. Upon his death, his heirs were unable to consolidate power and were brushed aside by Karim Khān Zand (ruled 1751–1779), who established the Zand dynasty and ruled from Shiraz until his death. Karim Khān actively encouraged the continuation of arts from the Safavid period, partly in order to prop up the legitimacy of his dynasty.

Karim Kāhn made Shiraz into the center of Iranian artistic activity, building palaces, fortifications, and mosques in emulation of the great Safavid ruler Shah ‘Abbas (1571–1629). He actively encouraged the wall painting and mosaic decoration of public buildings and was interested in the Safavid practice of documenting his reign through painting. Upon the death of Karim Khān in 1779, Aghā Muhammad Khān (died 1797) of the Turkomen Qājār people tried to unify Iran, in turn establishing the Qājār dynasty.

Glass production flourished in Iran during the early Islamic period (ca. 600s–1100s CE). By the time of the Qājār dynasty, glass production was not what it had once been, with some glass being imported from Bohemia, which was broken down and made into new vessels.


Correlations to Davis programs: The Visual Experience 4E: 10.11; Discovering Art History 4E: p. 38