Andalusia’s New Golden Pottery

In times past, Granada was a hub of artistic flair, imagination, and creativity, to the extent that the architecture of Muslim Spain exists as amongst the proudest Spanish monuments to this day. Such passion and dedication permeated many other realms of artistic endeavour such as calligraphy and perhaps not as well known, pottery.

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The Alhambra Vase

Just a short drive north from the dazzling palaces and gardens of the Alhambra, there is a small town called Jun, which has a little palace all of its own. Everyone knows about the Alhambra. Hardly anybody has heard of Jun, even in Granada. That's too bad.

Jun's palace is called Pabellón de las Artes. And what is the connection?

We'll have to enter Jun's Pavilion of the Arts to find out.

A massive iron door slides open easily, and we enter a bright, spacious museum that, in the distance, curves to the left, leaving the last part out of sight.

Lining the walls and filling the floor-space are more than a hundred ceramic vases, jars, jugs, plates, oil lamps and chests, from the gigantic to the diminutive. Gracefully shaped, colored and gilded, decorated with intricate geometric, floral and calligraphic designs, all are in the 14th- and 15th-century style of the Nasrid period when the Alhambra was built: the last 200 years of Muslim rule, when the arts in southern Spain flourished as never before.

Anyone with an interest in Andalusian history entering here would rub his eyes in disbelief and delight. Nearly all these ceramic pieces are lusterware, made by a complicated process that was gradually lost from this land after 1492, when the Muslims were finally expelled from Spain following the Christian conquest of the Kingdom of Granada.

Lusterware

Ceramics with this transparent, metallic over glaze are called loza dorada ("golden pottery") in Spanish, though, strictly speaking, the pieces may be any of several tints—both silver and gold tinged with green are common. The earliest lusterware was created at the beginning of the ninth century in Basra and Chuff, in what is now Iraq. Soon afterward, the artisans of Samarra, 125 kilometres (75 miles) north of Baghdad on the Tigris River, started to create large quantities to supply the courts of the Abbasid Caliphate, from India in the east to Al-Andalus —Muslim-ruled southern Spain—in the west. The technique also soon flourished in Egypt. From there, some two centuries later, artisans of Al-Andalus learned enough to start their own production, reaching their apogee of beauty and sophistication in the period of the Alhambra.

At first, lusters were made by applying pure metals like gold, silver, platinum, tin and copper—each for its distinctive color—to fired and wholly or partially glazed clay ("bisque"), which was then refired at a lower temperature. The resulting combination of glaze base and metallic sheen enhanced the lines and colors of the decoration. Later, the technique was refined by using metal oxides, which were also applied on top of the glaze base with a fine brush. (In a different, far less expensive process, pigment-based lusters, developed in the 19th century, often characterize commercial ceramics and porcelains up to the present day).

The Jugs of Alhambra

Jiménez explains his Alhambran luster technique in his typically exuberant fashion, which itself may be a legacy from the Moorish past. "I'm in a constant dialogue with all the elements of the cosmos: oxygen, earth, water, fire and time…. The process consists in converting metal into oxide and then oxide back into metal. Metal plus oxygen produces oxide. So if we now remove the oxygen from the oxide we added previously, we again get metal—a luster. The Arabs had this down to a fine art."

Complex lusters, he says, may require firing more than once—and some as many as six times.

Very few examples of the old lusterware have survived the last five centuries. One of the most famous is the enormous, amphora-shaped "Alhambra Vase" (also known as the "Vase of the Gazelles"), and a replica of it is a centrepiece in this Pavilion. Were I to make a guess as to how long it would have taken an artisan of Al-Andalus to produce it and all the rest of these riches, I would suggest a couple of lifetimes.

Wrong! They have all been produced by one man, and he is alive and well, and full of energy and ideas. Miguel Ruíz Jiménez is a short, bearded, powerfully-built man in his mid-50's. Said his wife, Ana, "He did it all himself, with his own hands. And he built the Pavilion as well. That alone took him 15 years!"

And he's filled his Pavilion only not with his art, but also a huge studio, an auditorium and research facilities. A stone's throw away, he runs a small factory that employs 24 people to produce the kind of decorative Andalusian pottery found in local shops. It is a separate world from his Nasrid-style lusterware, whose prices range all the way from € 100 to € 60,000 ($120–$72,000).

I thought a local Granada newspaper had exaggerated wildly when it described Jiménez as "a sketcher, welder, potter, wood carver, chemist, blacksmith, painter, writer, architect, sculptor and artist."

Jiménez likes to refer to what he does as "alchemy." In a way, this makes sense, for the origin of the word is the Arabic al-kimiya', which connotes transmutation. This is particularly apt for the lusterware, whose often golden color is achieved through a complicated, even arcane process.

He has followed the authentic Arab tradition in the making of Alhambran glazed pottery," says Ana Carreño, editor of El Legado Andalusí, a cultural magazine based in Granada. His research is "serious and accurate," she says, "and his determination and effort over 25 years has led to recognition here in Spain and in the Gulf Arab countries through exhibitions, television programs and workshops".

Son of a simple granadino potter, Jiménez got clay on his hands as soon as he could crawl. By seven he was throwing pottery. What set his artistic passions afire more than 30 years ago was the discovery of the sensual loveliness of the old Andalusian art. "When I contemplated the vases of the Alhambra, I decided that I wanted to do this, and I started to research and study," he says. The path he took was very different from that of his father.

The task was gigantic: Jiménez studied chemistry, and he visited Nasrid masterpieces worldwide. There are, he says, no original, firsthand written sources. From Nasrid times, only the bare names of a few ceramists have been found—Suleiman Alfaqui, Sancho Almurci, Hadmet Albane, Felipe Frances, Abdul Aziz, Abel Allah Alfogey. Of their techniques, there is nothing.

In 1990, Jiménez published the story of his research and struggle to recreate, experiment by experiment, the period's ceramics in a self-published book titled The Epic of Clay. Here, his mystical streak comes out in prose as florid as his Nasrid arabesques: "Formulae and excessive pretension of technical precision are at times superfluous," he writes, "for meeting the complex challenge of combining substance and space in pursuit of an intuitive art and dreamed shapes when confronted by a series of subtle factors, as unforeseeable, as variable, as those that determine the tonality, texture, coloring, and metallic intensity of the tones and, more specifically, what is going to be the singular identity of the masterpiece."

A little further on he writes of the duende, the spirit or soul, required to make lusterware. "We must feel intensely and with the greatest profundity those indefinite factors that, although they take us to a foreseen outcome, oscillate during the whole process in a wide abyss of contingency."

To recreate the Nasrid masterpiece style, he found clays and minerals both locally and as far a field as China, South Africa, England and France. Over four decades he studied the materials, built Arab-style kilns and fired them to reach temperatures up to 1040 degrees Centigrade (1904°F). (Examples of Arab-type kilns can still be found in ceramics centers such as Paterna and Manises.) For as long as anyone knows, the potters of this region have used "mountain wood"—thyme, rosemary and gorse—to achieve high temperatures and just the right kind of smoke. Jiménez used the same, varying his materials, varying his temperatures, shifting the placements of objects inside the kiln.

He also taught himself to draw the intricate calligraphy, "profuse and complex symmetry of plant motifs, geometric stylizations, chain patterns, borders and trimmings, stars, polygons" and more, all replicating or inspired by Nasrid originals. One large vase, he explains, has a surface area of two or three square meters (40 to 60 sq ft) densely covered with designs that have to settle on the curvilinear, irregular and multifaceted surfaces. Sketch after sketch, drawing after drawing, rejection after rejection, it may require as many as 300 or 400 drawings "with the corresponding days and days of laborious work and continuous meditation."

Then, for a masterpiece like the Alhambra Vase, which weighs about 100 kilograms (220 lb) and stands 1.5 meters high(4' 10"), the throwing is itself a process no less mind-boggling that may take Jiménez as long as a month. During this time, the upper part must never be allowed to dry out, lest it become impossible to join with the other parts, while the lower parts must gradually dry in order to support the weight of the top parts.

"You humanize the piece with your hands," Jiménez says. "You mark on the vase your impressions of humanity and sentiment, mastery and culture." It was this attitude, he believes, that enabled him to match the master craftsmen of Al-Andalus.

The more I looked into how Jiménez works, the more I saw a spiritual dimension in his art. The relationship between him and clay and fire, though based on years of observation and science, incorporates at least as much feeling and intuition, of the kind that comes from a master's understanding of each step along a complex path.

These days, Jiménez's meditations are broken most often by his cell phone, which interrupts him with questions from customers, family, friends and foremen in the factory. Watching him made me wonder where Michelangelo would have got to had he possessed a cell phone.

In order to focus Jiménez's attention for a talk, we went to lunch—phone off—in a popular village restaurant.

I asked whether his large amphora-style vases were indeed exact copies of known originals or his own designs. He explained that it was a combination: "You have to assimilate the [known] pieces, interpret them and then reconstitute, adding some of yourself. It is like the construction of a building. There is some cement, the basic knowledge. So you use the elements you control to add something more. My approach is that if there are elements I don't know, I search for them, I learn them—or I invent them."

The initial firing of the pieces, he explains, is one of the most difficult stages. His favorite kiln for the big pieces is still the Arab, wood-burning kiln. "In order to manage the atmosphere in the kiln," he says, "you have to know how the air functions and moves in there, parameters, proportions, height, placement, and how things work between the combustion chamber and the firing section. When you fill the kiln, you have to place the pieces exactly according to how you want them done, at the speed you want, controlling with an opening below. To achieve an atmosphere for firing properly, air should circulate with a minimum of oxygen."

And the smoke plays an important part, too. "Smoke—I cannot explain it. You have to know the interior of the kiln. You have to dream with it, think about it burning. Then see how the piece turns out and compare it with the previous piece. To get there in the end is an interminable chain of study, trial, error and trial."

Although by now we know the answer to my question, I ask it anyway: "Could you achieve an exact replica?"

Jiménez replies: "My question to you is: What would that culture have been doing had it not been for the horrible interruption 500 years ago, those horrible wars? I could become a simple messenger from that time, or I could continue to advance that richness, sensitivity and culture, that discipline."

What Jiménez achieved, as I saw, were near replicas of great fidelity to the originals, and occasional improvements. Many are his own designs. "I copy, research, create an essence, and then at times I add something from our time, but with all respect toward what those people did 500 years ago."

Lunch is about finished. Jiménez switches on his phone. It rings instantly. He answers, hangs up, and it rings again. With an impatient expression, he switches it off. "I'm going to get rid of this thing, and my factory, and all the things that occupy too much of my time. I want peace and quiet, time to create. That's what I was born to do. I need time to express what I have to express." As a final word, Jiménez says, "I hope others lean on what I have humbly done and move ahead."

This article is re-printed from:

Author: Tor Eigeland, 'Andalusia's New Golden Pottery,' Saudi Aramco World Magazine. 2006 Vol. 54 No.1.

Image Sources:

Image 1 (Close-up design) source: www.miguelruizjemenez.com

Image 2 (The Alhambra Vase) source: www.asia.si.edu

Image 3 (The Alhambra Jugs): www.miguelruizjemenez.com

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