Tiles were not produced in great quantities before circa 1200, and large-scale tile production kicks off at basically the same moment as the new "Kashan" style of painting: it is rare to find tiles decorated in the "Monumental" or "Miniature" styles althought they do exist. However, from the turn of the C13th, much of finest work of the Kashan potters is on tiles. The two prominent figures in this development are the potters Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir and Abu Zaid, who are known through signatures to have worked together on the most important tilework projects of the pre-Mongol period.
Their earliest dated joint effort is a sarcophagus in the tomb-chamber at Qumm, where the top panel is signed by Muhammad and the main frieze is signed by Abu Zaid. This work is dated 1206. At Mashhad in 1215 they undertake a much more ambitious project, cladding the walls in star and octagonal tiles surmounted by an inscription frieze, and installing two large and elaborate mihrabs, one of which is signed by Abu Zaid as well as a number of the star tiles. This is extremely high quality work, and shows that Abu Zaid produced some of the best products of the whole Kashan industry. There has been some confusion over dating this shrine, because two dates exist side by side in the inscriptions: 1215 and 1118. It is now thought that the tiling dates to the C13th, but the earlier date is included to commemorate the decoration that was replaced in 1215.
This pre-Mongol era in tile production sees a peak of artistic and technical achievement that is never again matched. The sudden decline in tile production after 1220 may be a result of the first wave of Mongol invasions, but may be equally due to the death of the pottery industry’s two major figures, Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir and Abu Zaid. The former’s last dated work was 1215 (Mashhad) and the latter’s was 1219. Thereafter there appears to be a vacuum which proves difficult to fill.
Very few dated pieces are known from the period 1220 – 1260, but thereafter a number of grand commissions by the new Il-Khanid rulers stimulate the Kashan industry into a resurgence of productivity, in which Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Tahir dominates. The major complex of the 1260s is the tomb-chamber of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin. The Ashmolean holds a group of these tiles in its collection. There are a series of lustre tiles from different dates from this complex, beginning with star and cross tiles dated 1262; a large mihrab is dated Sha’ban 1265, and another mihrab is added to the complex in Muharram 1305, signed by Ali’s son Yusuf.
The tomb-chamber of Imamzada Ja’far at Damghan (d.1266-7) is the next big dated complex with lots of lustre decoration: star and cross tiles survive with animal and human figural decoration, and inscriptions bearing Persian poems. There is a beautiful panel of these tiles in the Louvre. The sizes of the tiles are smaller, and they use blue and turquoise in the design. Watson thinks the drawing naïve compared to pre-Mongol production, but the technical quality is excellent.
The most important commission in the 1270s is the extensive palace complex at Takht-i Sulaiman, built by Abaqa Khan: this is the sole surviving secular building of this period which has lustre decoration. It is lavishly decorated in tiles of different techniques including lajvardina, which is the medium in which the new Chinese designs (phoenix, dragons, lotuses) especially appear. Star and cross tiles with inscriptions in Persian verse are dated 1271, 1272 and 1275; pictorial friezes show scenes of hunting and fighting, and also scenes from the Shah-Nameh: a lustre tile frieze tile in the V&A shows the hero Bahram Gur hunting with his favourite concubine Azada.
A few other tiles carry dates in the 1330s, but the very last dated item to be produced from Kashan kilns is a star tile bearing the date 1339. In the year before this, another star tile bears the desperate plea: "…in the place Kashan, may Allah, be He exalted, protect it from the ravages of time." Was this a cry for help in the face of declining orders?
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