Description & Technical information

A polychrome ‘Minai’ (enamel) handled cup from the latter half of the Turco-Persian Seljuq period (1040 – 1307), most probably from Kashan – a significant centre of ceramics production during this time – where potters moulded, fired and painted both Minai and lustreware works.
This handled cup rises from a short foot and widens to a spherical body, which tapers towards its neck at its widest point, emphasizing its curvature, and flares slightly at its rim. The artist has painted figures upon horseback, rendered in vibrant colours and outlined in black and gold, on the central frieze that encircles the body. Above the figures runs a blue band of Arabic calligraphy, written in Kufic script, while on the same spot in the interior of the cup there is a band of orange calligraphy, executed again in the Kufic style. The handle is S-shaped with a delicate, pale green scrolling pattern, which couples to underscore its function as a drinking utensil, along with its opulence; a luxurious example of the material culture of pre-Mongol Iran.
Minai means enamel in Persian, and the term refers to this type of pottery’s colourful decoration, which lies both in and over the glaze, here further enriched with gold (‘gilding’) which is visible on the horses’ reigns and the bows on their tails. Only certain colours are fixed as over glazed enamels. Some, such as turquoise, blue and purple are normally painted into the opaque white glaze after it has been applied and are fixed with it in the firing. Enamel pigments are then painted, and fixed in the second firing. These are normally restricted to red and black, but in more ambitious pieces, such as in this case, a whole range of other enamel colours are found together with gold gilding.[1] Such Minai works had to be fired twice in order to achieve their polychromatic harmonies and were consequently the most sought-after and costly wares; we can thereby infer that the patron or owner was likely to have been a member of the Seljuq elite.
The Seljuqs descended from nomads (specifically the Turkic Oghuz clan) who grazed cattle on the Central Asian land that the previous Persian dynasty, the Ghaznavids, had ruled. Following their relocation to Khorosan, armed conflict ensued and the Ghaznavids were defeated in battle. This was the beginning of the Seljuq Empire. Within a short time, the empire extended from Central Asia to Syria and Anatolia.[2] A number of new artistic techniques and forms of expression were developed during this period. In ceramics – and as this Minai cup exemplifies – highly detailed motifs were created in underglaze. The finest quality Minai alsofeature the most exquisite Seljuq painting; elegant, refined art for the elite, stylistically and chromatically innovative, masterfully composed. The figures have round faces, with slightly puffed-out cheeks and almond-shaped eyes (cheshm badami), which were considered the most attractive feature in treatises on beauty; books that may have informed this artist.[3] The motif of the riders on horseback suggests that the potter and/or painter may have also turned to contemporaneous manuscript paintings and even murals for inspiration.[4] Since books are more vulnerable than pottery to the malice or negligence of man over time, these Minai-wares are significant in their ability to suggest and reflect the formal peculiarities of a largely lost Seljuq art of the book. Many similar figures, closely related in their poses and clothing, were also displayed in the recent exhibition entitled ‘Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. One such surviving example is the painting entitled ‘Equestrian Portrait of Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, from the Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs) of Abu-l-Faraj al-Isfahani’ (Figure 1).[5] This work dates to 1217-19 and features a rider on horseback who wears a blue tunic, decorated with an intricate textile pattern, akin to the patterns – indicated by light blue and gold paint – that adorn the clothes of the procession of riders upon this Minai cup.
A similar fritware cup can be found in The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, which is attributed to twelfth to thirteenth century Kashan (Figure 2). The objects are related not only in form but also in their iconography; riders upon horseback and falcons adorn the central band of the Israel Museum cup. However, this example is fairly subdued in its range of colours compared to the Minai-ware in question, which visibly contains more black and red; the hardest colours to achieve in the second firing. Further examplescan also be found in major institutions today. For instance, the David Collection in Copenhagen contains a handled Minai cup dated to 1200, and again, curators have ascribed this object to Kashan (Figure 3).
Mr M. Parish-Watson was among a small community of international art dealers that lived in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. He was particularly renowned for collecting and dealing works of art from Asia, notably Chinese and Middle Eastern ceramics.[6] 

[1] O. Watson, Ceramics from Islamic Lands, (London, 2004), pp. 363 – 364.

[2] A.K.S. Labtom, ‘The Internal Structure of the Saljuq Empire’, in, P. Jackson and L. Lockhart (eds.), The Cambridge History of Iran, (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 202-204. It should also be noted that while the Seljuqs ruled only until the late twelfth century in Persia, dynasties in other areas – namely, Anatolia – continued to rule until the fourteenth century.

[3] S.I Sabra, The Optics of Ibn Al-Haytham, two volumes, (London, 1989); D. Roxburgh, Prefacing the Image: The Writing of Art History in the Sixteenth Century, (Boston, 2000), p.185. Ibn al-Haytham was one such Arab philosopher and scientist who wrote a treatise on beauty. As David Roxburgh has pointed out, this book was translated in Persian in the thirteenth century and subsequently widely distributed throughout Iran. 

[4] M.S. Simpson, ‘The Narrative Structure of a Medieval Iranian Beaker’, Ars Orientalis, Vol. 12, 1981, pp. 15-24, p.19; R. Hillenbrand, ‘The Relationship Between Book Painting and Luxury Ceramics in 13th-Century Iran’, in, R. Hillenbrand (ed.), The Art of the Seljuqs in Iran and Anatolia, (Costa Mesa, 1994),pp. 136 – 162, p. 138.

[5] This painting depicts a falconer on horseback, thought to represent Badr al-din Lu’lu, the Armenian slave of the Zangid Nur al-Din Arslan Shah I, who rose to become ruler of Mosul, Iraq. He is depicted enjoying a sport of kings or a conventional past time of the elite. This is the frontispiece to a manuscript of a tenth-century compilation of poetry set to music.

[6] M.S. Simpson, ‘Mostly Modern Miniatures: Classical Persian Painting in the Early Twentieth Century’, in, G. Neclpoglu and J. Bailey, (eds), Frontiers of Islamic Art and Architecture: Essays in Celebration of Oleg Grabar, (London, 2008), pp.359 – 395, p. 389; Y. Wang, ‘Art Dealers, the Rockefellers and the Network of Chinese Art in America’, PhD paper, Ohio University, (2008), p.1.

Date:  12th-13th century A.D.
Period:  Middle Ages, 12th century, 13th century
Origin:  Iran
Medium: Ceramic
Dimensions: 12.7 cm (5 inches)
Literature: The Parish-Watson Collection of Mohammadan Potteries, 1922. [Pg 87, Fig. 31].
Categories: Oriental and Asian Art