Curator's Corner

Spring on Tile

By Karl Cole, posted on Apr 11, 2011

Ever since I fell in like with American “art pottery” years ago—with the wonderful tile work that those companies produced at the turn of the twentieth century—I’ve been a big fan of tile work all over the world. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that if I wasn’t a painter I would love to be a ceramic artist, especially with the painted-on-design part. However, what I can do is sit back and admire the work of ceramic artists through the centuries.

Some of the most gorgeous tile work ever has come out of the Middle East. Need I mention the buildings in Isfahan, Iran, covered in gorgeous tile work? I came across this tile lunette while working on a Discovery Series set on Safavid art.


Turkey, Tile Panel from Iznik, ca. 1573.
Turkey, Tile Panel from Iznik, ca. 1573. Composite body of quartz, clay, and frit, painting on white slip with clear glaze, 27 9/16" x 55 11/16" (70.1 x 141.5 cm). © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. (MFAB-28)


In the centuries before book illustration became the important medium for pictorial representation, ceramics were one of the major vehicles for representation in Islamic art. Even after book arts’ primacy was established, the decorative arts continued to demonstrate the high level of sophistication of Islamic artists. It was not until the Islamic medieval period (900s–1100s) that a highly abstract and fully developed style emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as "arabesque." That term was coined by someone in Napoleon’s army when he invaded Egypt and saw the beautiful tile work there.

With the Mongol invasion of western Asia in the 1200s and the establishment of a Mongol court in Iran in the 1200s and 1300s, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted, though sometimes in markedly revised form. This lunette, intended for a building that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston does not identify, clearly shows Chinese influence. The flat, stylized floral patterns formerly adapted from Byzantine art, here are more “fleshed out,” although the flattened, frontal view persists.

The 1500s are considered the golden era of Ottoman (ca. 1281–1924) art. Between the 1500s and 1600s, ceramic arts flourished in the Ottoman Empire as never before. Under the Ottomans, the city of Iznik thrived as the main center of supply for ceramic tiles for decorating the many buildings commissioned by the rulers. Orders for architectural tile peaked during the 1600s.


Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 2 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; A Global Pursuit: 1.2; Discovering Art History: 4.7