|Isfahan Tile Work|
During the Seljuq period (1038-1157), the use of coloured tiles on buildings gradually became more common, although at the outset they served mainly to accentuate certain elements of the interlaced geometric designs created in brick. It has been suggested that the early development of colour was an attempt to make the Koranic inscriptions on the exterior of mosques more legible. The usually turquoise tiles appeared sparingly in the 11th century on funerary towers at Dâmghân and Kharaqân. Within a century, this use had increased dramatically: on the Gonbad-e Kabud in Marâgheh (Azerbaijân, 1196) the entire upper section of the tower, that is to say, the niches, the band of the interlaced inscription, the stalactite cornice and the pyramidal roof, is decorated with glazed tiles.
The mausoleum of Sultan Uljaitu Khodâbendeh at Soltânieh, near Zanjân, built in the first decade of the 14th century, marks a turning point in architectural tilework: the exterior of the dome, as well as the stalactite cornice, was entirely covered in turquoise tiles, while the entire interior surface of the walls of the great hall and of the dome were originally decorated with tiles and stucco. Up to the Safavid period, this type of ornamentation increased until it covered the entire visible surface area, inside as well as out. The range of-colours also increased, first by the addition of white and two different blues, a turquoise and an ultramarine, followed by ochre, olive green and brown (the last colours were used in the Blue Mosque at Tabriz, built in 1465, which is often considered the greatest example of glazed tilework decoration in Iran).
During the reign of the Safavid ruler Shâh Abbâs I (1571-1629), decorative tilework underwent a major technical change. In the midst of an ambitious building programme, and finding the traditional methods too time-consuming and laborious, Shâh Abbâs approved the adoption of a new technique, that of polychrome painting, or haft rangi, or ‘seven colours’.
The earlier method involved the creation of a cut faïence mosaic, requiring great patience, skill, and precision to carry out. First, a full-scale drawing of the final design was made on paper, which was placed over a layer of plaster. The lines of the design were pricked out with a needle and covered with a coloured powder to transfer it to the plaster beneath. The different elements of the mosaic were then carved out of the plaster. The pieces of paper from the original stencil were stuck onto a glazed sheet of the desired colour. Once these tile sections were cut out and filed down, they were placed, glazed side down, into the corresponding holes in the plaster mould. When all the pieces were in place, a layer of mortar was poured over the whole as a fixative. The panel was then set against the wall in its final position, leaving a small gap between it and the wall into which more mortar was poured to hold it firmly in place.
With the new haft rangi technique, the motif was no longer created by mosaic but painted directly onto the tile. There was therefore no longer any need to cut out the elements of the design and assemble them, but just to place the tiles side by side on the wall (dome exteriors were covered with glazed bricks, never with these painted tiles, which were too fragile). Unfortunately, this method is shorter-lived than the older one and the tiles, fixed to the wall with plaster, easily become detached.
After Shâh Abbâs' reign, the palette of colours changed once again and reds, yellows and even oranges were added to the earlier blue harmony. At the beginning of the 18th century, the reds disappeared and a golden yellow appeared which was often used together with blues. A very fine example of this is the West eivân of the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, redecorated during the reign of Shâh Sultan Hussein (1694-1722). But glazed ceramics gradually declined in quality, continuing a process which had already begun after the reign of Shâh Abbâs.
Zend and Qâjâr tilework shows a completely new departure from that of the Safavid period. For the first time, representations of people and animals form the main subject matter: there are hunting scenes, illustrations of the battles of Rostam, the hero of the national epic, the Shâhnâmeh, soldiers, officials, scenes of contemporary life and even copies of European illustrations and photographs. The figures are usually shown against a white background, sometimes set within a floral medallion. Large panels of still life fruit and flowers, with rather dominant yellows and pinks, were another favorite motif. Shiraz, followed by Qazvin and Tehran, became the centres of this new style which was used in the decoration not only of mosques and madresseh but also of administrative buildings and royal palaces.