Earthenware with blue painting on a white glaze, 12.5 cm diameter, Iraq (probably Basra), 9th century.
This elegant bowl with a simple but powerful design in blue represents the start of two of the world's most important ceramic traditions. The opaque white glaze was initially developed by the Islamic potters in order to copy Chinese white porcelains, which were then being imported in large numbers. They soon started to paint on the white surface with colours – copper green was inspired by Chinese wares, but manganese purple and especially cobalt blue were local Islamic inventions. This technology – painting with metallic oxides on a white glaze opacified with tin oxide – spread across the Islamic world, and round the Mediterranean. In later centuries it took hold in Spain, in Italy and spread north throughout Europe, where under the names hispano-moresque, maiolica, faience or delftware it provided Europe with luxury ceramics until the 18th century. The cobalt blue used in the 9th century Iraqi bowl is the first use of this as a ceramic pigment in the Middle East. Some five centuries later, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, it was with cobalt imported from the Middle East that China began its enormous production of blue-and-white porcelain, whose massive export dominated world ceramics for centuries. [Reitlinger Gift. EA1978-2137]