Spanish Lustre Dish - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Spanish Lustre Dish

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Spanish Lustre Dish

Part of the Illuminating Objects series: 6 February 2013 to 29 April 2013


Illuminating Objects Programme

Spanish Lustre Dish

Dish decorated in lustre with raised boss of concentric rings

This dish was probably made in Manises, a small town on the outskirts of Valencia, between about 1500 and 1525. The region of Valencia was home to a large-scale manufacture of lustred ceramics, exporting its wares all over Europe between about 1400 and 1600, with Manises as its most important centre. Spanish lustreware has a dual heritage, reflecting the Islamic and Christian history of the Iberian Peninsula: while the shape of this dish is European, the monochrome (one-colour) lustre and other elements recall the earlier ceramics of Islamic Spain.

This dish has been researched, presented and interpreted by Tanja Tolar, a PhD candidate in the History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). The findings were presented at a seminar held as SOAS in the spring term of 2013.

Spanish Ceramics: Craftsmanship in Context

For about two hundred years, from 1400 to 1600, lustreware was one of Spain’s most sought-after and exported luxury commodities. The economic success of this industry was due in large part to the continuous employment of Muslim potters even after the Reconquest in 1492. Muslims living in Spain under Christian rule were known as Mudéjars. They continued to work within the decorative traditions of Muslim Spain, and were responsible for the transmission of lustreware knowledge, as this highly specialised craft was learned through first-hand experience, and passed on from one generation of potters to the next.

The small town of Manises was for many years the most important centre in the region of Valencia; it had a thriving trade, and through its proximity to the international port of Barcelona, was able to export its wares all over Europe.

The production of lustreware was costly because it was technically very difficult to achieve and the ingredients were expensive, especially the silver for the lustre and the imported tin for the creamy white glaze. Although it was a luxury industry, many of the wares thought to have been made during the sixteenth century show firing accidents, smudges, fingerprints and distorted handles.

Other recurring imperfections, such as the misalignment of painted and moulded decoration in areas like the gadrooning around the dish, suggest the speed with which painters worked to meet orders. The presence of so many mistakes might also suggest that what mattered most to the international clients of Spanish lustreware was the overall effect of luxury achieved by the display of a huge quantity of wares, rather than the exquisite quality of individual pieces.

Spanish lustreware is extremely difficult to date because of the continuity of its designs. This continuity led to the invention of the term ‘Hispano-Moresque ware’ in the nineteenth century. This has recently been replaced by the more neutral ‘Spanish lustreware’, which describes it technically and situates it geographically, and at the same time distinguishes it from the earlier lustreware of Islamic Spain.

Italy was the most avid importer of Spanish lustreware. By the time this dish was made, potters from two Italian towns in Umbria, Gubbio and Deruta, had perfected their own version of lustreware, which imitated the look of Spanish lustre although the colours were quite different.

As interest in acquiring Italian lustred ceramics rose, Valencian lustreware became less desirable abroad and there was a sharp drop in exports. The region did however continue to produce its traditional lustreware, for a domestic market at least, well into the eighteenth century.

Design and Decoration

The design and decoration of Valencian lustreware reflect the region’s complex Islamic and Christian history. Much of the lustred decoration, like the technique itself, recalls the earlier Islamic ceramics of Spain, while the shape of many of the wares is European. Large dishes like these (this one measures 47.5cm in diameter) were made on an almost mass scale. Decorative motifs are fairly standard, consisting in stylized plants, geometrical ornament, and often including animals and coats of arms. True coats of arms are an important aid in the dating of pieces but many are untraceable and are purely aesthetic.

The ‘gadrooned’ pattern around the edge of this dish, is one of the most frequently recurring moulded designs on Spanish lustreware dishes of this period, as seen here in two examples from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The shape is not indigenous to Spain and is commonly found in Italian and European metalwork of the period. It was likely introduced to the potters of the area by the Italian merchants who exported these wares to clients across Europe.

The dish has two holes near the rim; careful looking reveals that the tin glaze which covers the surface also runs down into the holes, proving they were made before firing. All Spanish lustreware dishes have one or two holes, indicating they were suspended – either for storage or display. It is likely however that once exported to Italy such dishes could have been displayed differently, on a stepped piece of furniture, or credenza.

Around the well of the dish is an inscription in Latin, referring to the first line of the Gospel of John: ‘IN PRINCIPIO ERAT VERBUM’ (‘In the Beginning was the Word’). The phrase makes a striking decorative addition to the dish, which evokes both its Christian patronage and its Islamic heritage. Calligraphic inscriptions are an important legacy of the artistic traditions of Islamic Spain. Although the spelling here is faulty, the inscription is complete and legible. Many similarly positioned inscriptions, such as the one on a dish at the Victoria & Albert Museum, are much more difficult to decipher and many are purely decorative and totally lacking in meaning.

As with all Valencian dishes, the reverse is freely painted in lustre, here in a simplified floral design, strongly suggesting the dishes were designed to be seen from both sides.

Dish decorated in lustre with raised boss of concentric rings

Lustre Technology

Lustre technology was developed in the Middle East around the ninth century and flourished in the Islamic world. The tradition was maintained in Spain under Islamic and then Christian rule (from 1492) largely thanks to the continued presence of Muslim potters and the desirability of these wares through all of Europe.

It is a painterly technique involving the application of compounds of copper and silver, mixed with clay or ochre, to an already fired and glazed ceramic object. After the lustre has been applied, the vessel is then fired again at lower temperatures in another, smaller kiln. Firing in this special, oxygen-reduced kiln enables the metallic compounds to bond to the surface of the glaze. Recent scientific analysis has shown this metallic layer to be extremely thin, at 0,2 microns (or 0,0002 mm). The result is a metallic sheen resembling precious objects of gold and silver, which only reveals its full irridescence in optimum lighting conditions.
The colour and opacity of Spanish lustreware glazes depends on the quantity of tin used in their preparation. The more tin they contain, the whiter and more opaque the glaze. But tin was expensive, as it had to be imported from southwest England, and over time potters began to economise and make up glazes with less tin, resulting in clay-coloured tones, such as in this dish.

The colour of lustre depends on the exact combination of the metallic oxides, as well as the temperature in the kiln and other variables such as the interaction with the tin in the glaze. Lustre with a higher silver content creates a subtle golden sheen whereas lustre with a higher copper content is reddish brown. At the height of Valencian lustreware in the fifteenth century, hues tended to yellow or amber gold, changing to orange-gold, and eventually becoming browner and redder in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond. Recent technical analyses of lustreware compositions have noted that later lustres (of the 17th and 18th centuries), although they appear redder, are not so because there is less silver but rather because there is more copper used. Previously it was thought that the red tones were due to potters’s economising in their use of silver. However this new discovery could change the conventional thinking about later wares, implying the motivation was a change in taste or fashion (with a preference for redder tones) rather than one of economics. Red tones are typical of the late period, as for example in this two handled vase.

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