Historical Pot: Bird-headed Pitcher

This lovely little gem, a fritware bird-headed pitcher, hails from Iran made between the years 1200-1250. I’ve sourced it from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum collection. You can search the collection online to your hearts content but if you are ever in the area make an effort to get there! I spent the whole day there once only to be scurried out by the security guard at closing, being the last visitor there. I’d be a dedicated label reader and sketchbook sketcher if only I had a week in those hallowed walls. Alas, the museum has thought that through, labels are available online too!

Label: In addition to the wide variety of traditional ceramic shapes, Persian potters created a range of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vessels. The upper section of this pitcher is in the form of a rooster or cock’s head. It has a prominent comb, a slit beak for pouring, and a slight wattle under the beak. The large round eye is characteristic of such pitchers. The rest of the pitcher body takes a more traditional ceramic and metalwork shape with molded, incised, or painted surfaces. The pronounced honeycomb molding on this pitcher recalls the turquoise-glazed jug B60P1927. Both vessels were inspired by metalwork prototypes with hammered surfaces and knobbed handles.

Bird-headed pitchers appear in Persian poetry, and they enjoyed a well-traveled history. Early Persian examples in silver from the Sasanian era (224-651) arrived in China where they were emulated in pottery and porcelain during the Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) periods. Chinese versions, known as phoenix-headed pitchers due to the alteration of their shape and symbolism, reached West Asia in the tenth century. Islamic potters mimicked the Chinese pitchers with an opaque white glazed ware. Later, a variety of decorative techniques were used, demonstrating the versatility of the medieval Persian potter working with fritware. There are bird-headed pitchers in luster and even pitchers with black-painted designs under a turquoise transparent glaze. Molded monochrome turquoise-glazed examples like this one are rarer and perhaps more striking in their simplicity.

My favorite online catalog touch- a photo of the bottom. In museums I long to see all sides of pots. The stagnant no interaction model of museums seldom indulge handsy potters like myself. This is the next best thing. Feel with your eyes.


Historical Pot: Pottery is the oldest record we have of the creative mind. Civilizations around the world all came to clay separately to make archetypal forms that resonate in every modern pot. The ceramic process with a bit of rapid prototyping and electricity withstanding still relies on ancient processes and materials. There is a wealth of ancient work out there seldom given the spotlight and I am eager to seek it out.


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