When I laid eyes upon the Mosque Lamp at the Frick Art Museum last week, I was immediately entranced. A large glass piece with intricate calligraphic design, it had delicacy, presence and age. I wanted to know its story. Some objects are like that.
The enameled lamp, made in the 14th century, possibly in Syria, would have been suspended from the ceiling of a mosque or madrasas (Quranic school) by chains attached to the loops on its lower bowl. It is believed to have been purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1903. A nearby photograph shows the lamp upon a piano at Eagle Rock, the Frick family summer home in Prides Crossing, Mass.
Displayed next to the lamp is a 1909 edition of an English translation of the Quran, purchased by the Fricks in Paris and part of the Clayton library. That may seem startling today, but it simply reflected a late 19th-century interest in unfamiliar religions, said Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs for the museum in Point Breeze.
I was at The Frick to see "A Kind of Alchemy: Medieval Persian Ceramics," 60 clay objects made between the 10th and 14th centuries in what is now Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. The exhibition was organized by the Appleton Museum of Art, College of Central Florida, Ocala. The ceramics were part of the collection of founder Arthur Appleton.
Ms. Hall expanded text labels for the Frick installation and broadened the cultural context of the clay works. For example, she quotes Persian poet, mathematician and scientist Omar Khayyam. She also supplemented the exhibition with items from the center's collection like the lamp to add to the understanding of the Frick family.
An Islamic golden age was taking place during a period when Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, Ms. Hall said. Her goal was to "give a sense of that wonderful creative world and sophisticated culture."
The exhibition is divided between two sites, both in present-day Iran, and examples of dominant pottery techniques are shown and described within each. Nishapur was a sophisticated multi-ethnic city, Ms. Hall said, located along the Silk Road trade route and important as a ceramic center from the ninth to the 12th centuries.
Thrown earthenware bowls and other vessels were coated with a white slip (diluted white clay) in emulation of Chinese porcelain, which was the ceramic gold standard for centuries. Surface designs included calligraphy, which was associated with the Quran although verses from the Muslim holy book are not written on pots. Many inscriptions are illegible, perhaps reflecting a singular interest in their abstract aesthetic quality.
Plants, bird and other animal motifs were applied to surfaces. On a pot such as exhibition No. 29, one may see the beginnings of "the wonderful flowing incised rhythmic lines that could continue to infinity" that later typified Islamic patterns, Ms. Hall said. A sign of the city's cosmopolitanism is the inclusion on a bowl of a repeating three-dot pattern known as chintamani that is associated with the Buddhist symbol of the three pearls of wisdom ( No. 31).
Nishapur declined after a series of earthquakes in the early 13th century. Then Genghis Khan's daughter ordered the slaughter of the city's population in 1221 after her husband was killed by a Nishapur archer.
Kashan fared better and in the 17th century became known for extraordinary hand-loomed carpets. Fritware, which combined quartz pebbles ground to a fine powder with clay, was a technical and aesthetic achievement, producing a "really nice white body that came closer to Chinese porcelain," Ms. Hall said. Because of its high quartz content, the pot body matched the glaze, resulting in a heightened fusion of the two in the kiln. Pots became more monochromatic, with turquoise, a color associated with Persia, ascending in popularity. The resistant body lent itself to molded forms such as a bull-shaped vessel which may have held olive oil or perfume.
Noteworthy in the last gallery is a 12th-century bowl with images of a man on horseback, a recurring motif of Islamic pottery. While the designs have deteriorated, the museum has thoughtfully placed a photograph of one of the horsemen next to the bowl (No. 39).
"There was lots of clay in these towns -- bricks, tiles, terra cotta or earthenware for everyday use, unglazed functional ware," Ms. Hall noted. "Ten percent of the pots were glazed, and of that, 1 percent were fine glazed ware. Those spoke to status and wealth and taste."
She continued: "A strength of ours is that [the museum] can occasionally focus on artistically important ethnographic material that often doesn't get treated as art. We can lavish attention on it and give it a beautiful presentation."
This jewel of an exhibition exemplifies that kind of niche material presented for visitor edification.
"Alchemy" continues through June 16 at the Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. "A Separation," the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film and the first Iranian film to win that award, will be screened at noon May 9. A couple struggles with the decision to stay in Iran and care for a parent with Alzheimer's or leave the country for the sake of their child. Free. "Decorative Ceramics of the Gilded Age" is the April 30 Coffee and Culture topic ($10, $8 members; advance registration required). An adult workshop on painting bisque-fired tiles will be May 2 ($20, $15 members, materials included; registration required). Information: 412-371-0600 or www.TheFrickPittsburgh.org.
Fiberart International 2013
This is a great weekend for art lovers, beginning with the reception for Fiberart International 2013 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside, 412-361-0873, and the Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District, 412-261-7003 (free and public).
An international fiberart forum will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, beginning with a keynote address by International co-juror Joyce J. Scott, a Baltimore-based, internationally exhibited bead artist, weaver, sculptor, jeweler, performance artist and activist. Following, discussions will be offered with many of the exhibiting artists, some visiting from overseas, at both venues (transportation between them will be provided). Space is limited; $50 includes lunch. The exhibition continues through Aug. 18. Information: 724-863-8630.
Those who want to get a jump on the weekend may check out "Alabaster Blast" during the opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Fe gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville (free and public). The exhibition of contemporary fiber artists showing for the first time in Pittsburgh is held to complement Fiberart International and continues through May 18. Information: 412-254-4038.
One of the best-attended openings in any year is that of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual Exhibition, which will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday (awards ceremony at 8 p.m.) at Carnegie Museum of Art (free and public). Juror David Norr, chief curator, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, selected 68 artworks by 46 artists. The exhibition continues through June 23. Information: 412-361-1370.
Spring's burst of blooms is a reminder that it's time to think about renewing your community supported agriculture subscription, that commitment to local farms that provides them with a vote of economic confidence and provides you with boxes of produce during the growing season. A group of prominent Pittsburgh artists are launching their own version, CSA PGH, which will deliver six identical artworks to 50 subscribers. Shares go on sale at 10 a.m. April 30. Information: www.csapgh.com.
Art All Night
The 16th installment of Art All Night: Lawrenceville will be held 4 p.m. April 27 to 2 p.m. April 28 in the warehouse at 97 40th St., Lawrenceville. A call has been put out for artists (April 22 submission deadline) and volunteers. Information and registration: artallnight.org.artarchitecture
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.