The potter has succeeded in creating a truly organic form arising from two rounded sections of pottery that were fired together, before applying the spout and handles. One side is slightly concave whilst the other convex, with a small boss, imitating metalwork models, fitting perfectly between both hands. Decorated in the early blue and turquoise of the mid-sixteenth century with a fantastical mix of animals, it is one of the earliest instances in which this design (that was to become popular later), appears.
Although unique in Iznik ware, this form, which is most often associated with pilgrimage, can be traced back to pre-Islamic times. The shape itself has been associated with Middle Bronze age pottery vessels, as well as with natural materials, such as animal-skin gourdes (C. Gallorini, Innovation through interactions: A tale of three ‘pilgrim flasks’, University of Birmingham). Early examples from the Middle East include unglazed earthenware ampullae of a similar shape, found in abundance between the fourth and seventh centuries depicting Saints, notably Saint Menas, and used by pilgrims to carry home water, oil or even soil from the Holy site they visited (see Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no.x.197). A first-century model excavated in Bahrain is now in the British Museum, London, inv. no.1999,1030.10.
With the advent of Islam in the seventh century, these flasks became associated with the collection of Holy Zamzam water, from the well of Zamzam within the Masjid al-Haram, Mecca. Under the Mamluks, these were sometimes referred to zamzameyyah (see a Mamluk example attributed to the fourteenth century in the Jordan Archaeological Museum, Amman, inv. no.J.98, and another of similar form in the National Museum of Aleppo, Syria, inv. no.QH2004-X 227). Furthermore, a number of these canteens or water flasks, notably those bearing armorial blazons, have been associated with Mamluk military life (see Edward Gibbs, 'Mamluk ceramics: 648 – 923 AH/1250 – 1517 AD' in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol.63 / 1998-99 (2000), pp.19-44).
One of the marked differences between the present example and those from the Mamluk period is a real desire on behalf of the Iznik potter to create an organic form, matching the leather prototypes, particularly noticeable in the slight curvatures of the body. The accentuation of this form must have been very difficult to produce and resulted in a slight crack in the glaze along one edge. The shape, in metalwork form, is highlighted by a large silver-inlaid canteen attributed to mid-thirteenth century Syria (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, inv. no.F1941.10). Like the present pilgrim flask, it is the only known example of its kind from the Islamic world. Another unique model, in glass, is a pilgrim bottle in the British Museum, London attributed to the Mamluk dynasty, Egypt or Syria, thirteenth century (inv. no.1869.1-20.3). This free-blown globular shaped vessel is impressive in its size and the attention of the glass-blower to the shape, an impressive technical feat.
Although no exact similar forms exist in Iznik, one of the closest examples from the same period is a blue and white ‘Baba Naqqash’ style pilgrim’s flask dated to the late fifteenth century in the Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres (inv. no.15472. D). The spout is a metal replacement and so it is difficult to infer what the shape of the original would have looked like and whether it had handles such as the present piece. Accentuated in the centre of the flask is a roundel, echoing the one on the present and those on metalwork canteens.
While Iznik wares are generally known for their creative floral designs combining the Ottomans’ most loved flowers, notably tulips, carnations, hyacinths and roses; animals, real or fantastical, also represented favoured motifs of decoration. The animals depicted on the present flask include running dogs, hares, sitting deer, felines and one small bird amidst scrolling foliage. These are all arranged in a seemingly disparate order, some dogs running forward, seated hares looking backwards, a single bird sitting on a branch. Although these animal forms recall the ‘animal chase’ tradition as seen on Persian metalwork, which alludes to the hunt, a courtly pastime, this so called ‘animal style’ most probably derived from the Balkans.
As with many Iznik forms and designs, this animal decoration was probably borrowed from another medium, that of Balkan silverwork, particularly popular during the reigns of Ahmed I (1603-17 AD), Osman II (1618-22) and Murad IV (1623-40) (see Atasoy and Raby 1989, p.276, nos.615-621, and p.256). The drawings of this flask suggest earlier precedents for this later tradition, and a direct familiarity with the silver among some of the Iznik decorators at this time. The touches of turquoise and the painterly quality in the depiction of animals confirm Atasoy and Raby’s dating in the 1540s and no later for this piece. It can be compared to an unusual pottery disk offered in these rooms, An Eye for Opulence – Art of the Ottoman Empire, 24 April 2012, lot 110.
This unique blue and white flask bears testimony to the breadth of experimentation of Iznik potters. Both the elegance of the shape and the playfulness of the design on this flask hail from varying traditions, and are a result of the transformation of forms and motifs across different media.
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