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Treasure from Spain: lusterware as luxury

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of a lusterware dish, second half of the 15th century, tin-glazed and luster-painted earthenware, made in Valencia, Spain, 38.4 cm diameter (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in a small room in the Robert Lehman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is completely devoted to Renaissance ceramics, and we're looking at a beautiful lusterware dish. - [Lauren] This lusterware dish comes from Spain in the second half of the 15th century, and lusterware was not only very common at this point, but it was incredibly popular. And we find it all across western Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, because it was traded, it was exported across vast expanses of land because people desired this type of ceramic. - [Steven] This represents a type of object that easily crossed cultural boundaries, and one of the reasons that people loved it is because of its metallic opalescent sheen. It's just beautiful. It glows, it's as if the plate is embedded with gold. - [Lauren] If we move around it, we see different reflections moving across the surface, animating it in this really shiny, shimmery way. I mean, it's just beautiful to look at. - [Steven] So here was a technique that used earthenware, which was a relatively inexpensive material, and made it glow. And I think we can imagine in the 15th century, in an era when bright colors were relatively rare, when many of the objects that we take for granted would have been considered extraordinarily luxurious, just how attractive lusterware must have been. - [Lauren] Lusterware is centered in Spain in the 15th century in Valencia, and the dish that we're looking at here comes from one of the most important centers of production, Manises, which had arguably the best lusterware artists of the 15th century. - [Steven] The fact, those artists were sometimes exported to distant regions in order to set up shop in order to produce lusterware tiles in distant locales because transportation of those tiles would have been costly. - [Lauren] And to me it makes sense that lusterware comes from Spain, because of the cross-cultural exchanges that had to happen for this to be able to be produced. Lusterware is indebted to Islamic ceramic technology and production. And of course, Spain has a long history and relationship to Islam in that much of Spain was formerly Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. And this type of ceramic vessel, this type of tin glazed earthenware actually originates with Islamic pottery that was developed in the ninth century, and then it is brought to Spain and develops there. So after this area of Valencia was reconquered by Christians, you still have a lot of Muslims living there and continuing this type of craft. - [Steven] And that relationship between Christian and Islamic territory is in a sense mimicked in the mesmerizing decoration of this plate. One aspect that is central to Islamic design is the idea of the repetition of a single unit, and we see that throughout this plate. On the other hand, we also see references to the Greco-Roman world, especially in that wonderful vine motif that wraps around the outer border of the plate. - [Lauren] And I'm reminded of metalwork here, particularly in repetition of this ivy vine and tendril motif. It reminds me of low relief engravings on the surfaces of different metals, and of course, lusterware is supposed to mimic metals to some degree. - [Steven] And that's because metal would have been much more expensive to produce than what is essentially an earthenware plate that has had metal oxides applied to the surface. - [Lauren] In other examples of lusterware made in Spain, we see a lot more blue. This particular dish that we're looking at has no blue in it, but in a lot of them, you have the presence of cobalt, and that is because prior to the 15th century, particularly in Islamic ceramic production, there was a desire to replicate Chinese blue and white porcelain. Then that is brought to Spain, and so in the earlier half of the 15th century, you see a lot more examples of lusterware with cobalt blue included in them. The fact that this one has an absence of cobalt actually helps us date it to the second half of the 15th century. - [Steven] This plate probably would not have been intended to be used. Not only does it have that convex boss in the center, but you can also see a hole that's been drilled in the top, and so it's very likely that this was put up for display. - [Lauren] This type of vessel was very popular, as I mentioned earlier, and it was collected by many different elites across Europe. We find reference to it in records that indicate that the Dukes of Burgundy owned some, it was popular in Florence, it was popular across Spain. We find examples of it from England all the way down to Sicily. It was even traded to Egypt at this time because of transformations in trade across the Mediterranean. - [Steven] And it's interesting today in the museum that that kind of transnationalism is replicated. We find lusterware in different parts of the museum. We find it in the section devoted to Spain, we find it in the area of the museum that's devoted to Islam, and we find it in the Medieval section, but there is a difference. In the 21st century, many museum visitors tend to walk by ceramics, even objects as beautiful as this, preferring to look instead at painting, perhaps sculpture. But for those that stop and take a moment to look, they are really rewarded. - [Lauren] Even if you're looking at Renaissance paintings, you can also find examples of lusterware included in these paintings. A really famous example would be Hugo van der Goes' Portinari altarpiece, which was brought by a Florentine merchant and banker back to Florence, but yet was painted by a Flemish artist, and right there in the central portion of the altarpiece, you find an example of Spanish lusterware. - [Steven] And it's important to note that that painting is a representation of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ child, and yet lusterware had such significance that it found a place amongst the Holy family. (jazzy piano music)