Hispano-Moresque Albarello

Spain (Paterna or Manises), 1435–1460
Tin-glazed earthenware painted in cobalt blue and luster
Height: 29 cm

Gift of George Blumenthal to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1941 (41.190.112);
Exchanged in June 2007 for a marble tabernacle
(France, 14th century) from the Doll collection;
Collection of Paul W. Doll jr., New York, until 2020.

This three-coloured albarello, a vessel, used to store valuable spices, was probably made in a pottery workshop in Manises
or Paterna in the second half of the 15th century. Standing on
a distinctly modelled pedestal, the tall, slender cylindrical body has slightly concave walls; the shoulder is short and the neck section long. The white-glazed body is divided into four registers coloured in a bold cobalt blue and manganese brown. The two principle sections, divided by a manganese brown ring outlined in blue, are decorated with vegetal shapes (with alternating leaf and floral patterns), an ataurique decorative motif typical of Arab earthenware. Fine arabesques embellish the shoulder; the long, straight neck has a linear decoration in cobalt blue and manganese brown.

The first lustreware pieces were fashioned in the early 9th century under the Abbasids in present-day Iraq although, originally, it
is probable that glassmakers already developed the lustreware technique in the 8th century. The recipe for exquisite earthenware was a well-kept secret. Through the migration of potters and their families the secret technique spread across Egypt, then Syria and Persia. From the 12th century onwards lustreware was produced in Muslim regions on the Iberian Peninsula. The workshops in Manises and Paterna near Valencia are famous. For the potters, the long, stable political climate and wealthy clients in ‘al-Andalus’ were conducive to their success. The region also boasted rich deposits of metals and clay that were needed in the production of lustreware.

In the Middle Ages, Spanish-Islamic lustreware from Andalusia that shimmered like gold was highly prized in Europe. Items made in Muslim pottery workshops were exported over land and across the Mediterranean to Christian countries in the Western World, to Sicily and northern Germany. Lustreware was considered a status symbol – not only by the great houses of Spain. The Duke of Burgundy and the Medicis of Florence were also among those who commissioned and collected works which often bore religious or heraldic decorative motifs.

This albarello entered the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1941 as part of the extensive bequest of the banker George Blumenthal (1858–1941). In 2007, together with the wing of a medieval tabernacle, the vessel was exchanged for a marble tabernacle from the 14th century in the collection of Paul W. Doll jr., of New York. The MET presumably decided to part with Blumenthal’s gift as two albarelli with very similar decorative elements were included in the bequest, as seen in the image


1001 Nights in Granada. Sublime – like in Paradise

Our albarello dates from the cultural period of the Moors who ruled over large parts of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa for several centuries. The Moorish emirate under the Nasrid dynasty is known for its architectural and artistic masterpieces. Mohammed V (1338–91) belonged to this ruling family. In 1378, he had the so-called Court of the Lions, with its surrounding colonnaded galleries, built in the palace and fortress complex in Granada, the Alhambra. Under this emir, Granada rose to become the centre of Islamic culture in the western world.

In the Mediterranean

Maiolica is an island

For the Spanish, the island was called Mallorca; however, in the Middle Ages the Italians called it Maiolica. And this was the name given in Italy to the Moorish lustreware exported from Spain via Mallorca that enjoyed great popularity. When people in Italy learned to master the technique of tin glazing and the overlaid glost fired colours, the name of the export product was transferred to domestic products.

Travelling in the Middle Ages

People on the move

Travel is not only popular today; mobility was very much part of people’s lives in earlier times, too. Motives for travelling could be of a religious or economic nature, as in the case of the Muslim potter families, or conditioned by rulers. The majority of ordinary people travelled on foot. Means of transport included pack animals, carts, sedan chairs, ships and rafts. Most travellers did not cover more than 100 kilometres a week. With every step they would feel the weight of their own bodies and often the weight of the bags they carried. Messengers and sailing ships (if the winds were favourable) were much faster by the standards of the time. They could cover 150 to 200 kilometres a day. Marco Polo reports of Mongolian despatch riders on horseback who could cover up to 375 kilometres in one day. Dispatch riders were a kind of historical courier service who had to deliver letters or goods at a fast gallop. It is, however, reassuring to know that it was not usually the same person or horse on the move the whole day: instead, there was a change of rider and horse at fixed locations.