Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation

This exhibition focuses on revolutionary and enduring changes that took place in Iraqi ceramics during the 9th century as the humble character of Islamic pottery responded to a wave of luxury Chinese goods, imported by Arab and Persian merchants. During this period, Iraq became a center for Islamic ceramic production as new technologies transformed common earthenware into a vehicle for complex multi-colored designs. Chinese ceramics were admired in Iraq for their shiny white surfaces and hard body. As neither the essential raw materials nor the appropriate firing technology were locally available, Islamic potters therefore created their own versions by covering finely potted yellow clay hemispherical bowls with a glaze that turned opaque after firing, creating ceramics that were described as “pearl cups like the moon.” This technique offered the potters an ideal canvas for bold decorative designs, first in cobalt blue and then with “luster”; mixtures of copper and silver that were painted onto the glaze then fixed in a second firing.

Following the gradual disintegration of the Abbasid Empire after the 10th century, migrating Iraqi potters transmitted these techniques to Egypt and Iran from whence they traveled to Europe, giving rise to the great “Majolica” tradition in medieval Spain and Renaissance Italy. In China, 14th-century experiments with cobalt blue from the Islamic world led to Yuan and Ming blue-and-white.