Large Bowl with Abstract Peacock Motif

Nishapur, Eastern Iran
Earthenware, white slip with polychrome decoration under transparent glaze
10th -11th century AD
34.5 cm Diameter, 12.5 cm Depth

This rare 10th to 11th century AD earthenware bowl from Nishapur, Iran embraces within its form a tradition of ceramic art that represents the ‘silk route’, which connected Iran and West Asia Islamic lands with Central Asia and China. For a work of this antiquity, the remarkable integrity of its form and chromatic is noteworthy as its elegant, truncated, cone-shaped bowl, formed of white slip painted with coloured brown manganese and red clay under a transparent lead-based glaze, reveals a remarkably modern approach to representation. The form of two peacocks is vividly abstracted through two diametrically opposed decorative forms representing the fanned display of this bird species during courtship rituals.

Seen from an overhead perspective, two peacocks, in effect a male peacock and a female peafowl, are set at opposite ends of the bowl’s flared body. Gathered into the body, the feathers lead to a train, where the iconic and colourful iridescent eyespots are seen. Loose barbs on the feathers can be seen gathering into the concentrated ‘eyespots’ which are instrumental in the bird’s display and courtship signalling.

On the bowl, these chromatic variations are expressed through different tonalities of brown manganese and red clay. The feathered bodies are gathered into the avian shoulders and taper to flaring beaks, which in turn are connected by a single linear band with a serrated edge. The alternate sides of the bowl see the lip decorated by a series of segmented bands that descend down the tapering bowl, from solid to serrated.

The bowl comes from Nishapur, a vital city in the early and middle Islamic periods, whose diverse population of Nishapur ranged from the better-researched elite groups of merchants, land-owning aristocracy, and literates, to the less-known artisans, farmers, miners, and servants, but all instrumental in adapting global cultural trends to create their own distinctive visual languages.

Today, the medieval city is a vast archaeological area, while the relatively small modern city is situated to its north. Instead, Mashhad, a major pilgrimage site, emerged as a prosperous metropolis in the region. Between 1935 and 1948, the “Persian Expedition” of the Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated at several sites at Nishapur under an agreement with the Iranian authorities.

American archaeologists and hundreds of Iranian workers excavated archaeological areas named Tepe Madrasa, Village Tepe, Sabz Pushan, Qanat Tepe, Tepe Alp Arslan, Vineyard Tepe, among others. They uncovered vast neighbourhoods with mostly residential buildings, but also mosques, bathhouses, and possibly a governmental palace. Two main chronological phases were recognized in the sites: the first covers the ninth-tenth centuries and the second covers the eleventh-twelfth centuries.

A comparable ceramic bowl is in the collections of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto [Inv. No. AKM749] and a second example is in the collections of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts [Inv. No. 1952.Dp.1].

Spink and Son, London, 1976.
Private Collection, UK, 1976-2022.
Prahlad Bubbar Ltd., UK, 2022-present.

Note: Thermoluminescence test conducted by Oxford Authentication confirming the dating of the piece.

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