Ceramic Zodiac Plate

This blue and white ceramic plate is unique in Islamic art. We don't know what it was originally used for. It might have been part of some kind of instrument used in astronomy, since it's decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac. The zodiac is an ancient tradition that emerged in the first millennium B.C. The signs acquired the forms familiar to us during the Hellenistic age.

We can recognise most of the symbols immediately: Libra, Gemini, Aries the ram, Capricorn and Pisces. Aquarius dips a goatskin sack into a fountain. Sagittarius is depicted here as a centaur, aiming his arrow at his own tail, which has become a dragon.Leo the lion carries the sun on his back. That symbolism is particularly powerful and was used as a coat of arms in Iran until 1979.

The plate was made in 1563. It was a period when Chinese motifs were increasingly popular in ceramics, book art and carpet designs. This plate displays typical Chinese tendril ornamentation and fish scale designs. The face on the sun above Virgo's head, for instance, is reminiscent of Tibetan images. Well into the nineteenth century, the eyebrows that met in the middle were the ideal of beauty for Persian women. But that ideal originally came from East Asia. So this plate incorporates the fusion of two traditions in Islamic art – the classical antiquity of the West and the culture of East Asia.