Lustre-painted ceramics represent the largest corpus of Islamic figural art that has come down to us from Fatimid Egypt (969-1171 CE). Scholars have often argued that the iconography of lustre ceramics from the Fatimid period emerged from a repertoire of Fatimid court painting, now entirely lost. The existence of several reconstructed bowls and countless shards of lustre from various urban regions of Egypt has led scholars to conclude that the patrons of these ceramics were more likely the urban elite, rather than the court. Thus, the large variety of images on the lustre poetry, and their differing artistic styles have been understood essentially as an imitation of a court tradition; a reflection of the social aspirations of the urban elite to emulate the lifestyle and ethos of the court in artistic terms. Using the images on lustre pottery and contemporary literature as the main primary sources, the paper re-evaluates our present understanding of Fatimid lustre pottery as essentially a representation of the courtly milieu. The paper continues to explore the multiple layers of meaning that a potential image may have had for the mediaeval producers and consumers of that image, concluding that iconography painted on lustre pottery from Fatimid Egypt could have been interpreted on several levels, depending on its audience. The main literary sources utilised for this investigation are: the 11th century Book of Gifts and Rarities (Kitab al-Hadaya wa’l-Tuhaf), the 9th century Book of Animals (Kitab al-Hayawan) of al-Jahiz (d. 869), and the 14th century shadow play Al-Mutayyim wa al-Yutayyim of Muhammad ibn Daniyal (d. 1310).


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Dr Fahmida Suleman

Dr Fahmida Suleman is Phyllis Bishop Curator for the Modern Middle East at the British Museum.  


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