Tag Archives: Moorish Spain

Good Impressions, Part 5: The ceramic legacy of Moorish Spain

Cuerda seca, lion in a landscape, 17th century. Source: Wikimedia

Cuerda Seca: While investigating an Art Nouveau method of tilemaking, cuenca, I learned about the technique from which it originated: cuerda seca. The latter is a Portuguese word meaning ‘dry string.’ Coated string was used to make a line of black resist to prevent glazes from running. Originally, the string was saturated in animal fat and minerals that blackened when fired, like iron or manganese. The fat soaked string was heated, placed on the piece to outline the design, then burned off in firing, leaving a black line that separated colors. Cuerda seca is an Islāmic method of tile decoration that was brought to Spain by the Moors. Wikipedia states that “the craft is still in use in the Arab world” with two main traditions, Egyptian and Moroccan Zalij. “This origin explains the unmistakable Arab influences in many tiles: interlocking curvilinear, geometric or floral motifs.” In Spain, Seville became the tilemaking center where cuerda seca tiles were made. Recently, Christie’s sold a tile panel from Toledo for 10,000 Euros at the Decorative Arts Sale, held in Amsterdam in June.

Vase with palm tree. 8th–9th century CE, Iran. Source: Wikimedia

Cuenca: In the 19th century, cuerda seca was again popularized during the Art Nouveau period. The style evolved during that time. Sometimes designs were simply outlined with black. Cuenca, a Moorish method of outlining with slips and engobes also became popular then. In fact, it became a hallmark of ceramics during the Art Nouveau period. Cuenca means ‘basin;’ a reservoir was created by the trailed slips into which glazes were pooled. There is a tie-in with the Arts and Crafts period, too, as style eras overlapped. It was during this time that the cuenca method also came to be known as tube-lining. Because of the popularity of bungalow style, since the 1990s, there has been a return to the production of these decorative methods and motifs. Motawi, Historic Style, and Du Quella Tile & Clayworks, and are but a few potteries that sell ceramics made in the cuenca style. Today, safer methods are used for cuerda seca, too, which has also experienced a comeback. Now, black wax resist is used to outline designs. Using Aftosa’s product, black lines will remain up to Cone 8. These decorative styles and methods have spanned centuries and are still actively used. That’s what I call staying power! In the early 1990s, my mother gave me an Art Nouveau vase. Little did I know then that I would come to learn about the method with which it is made, cuerda seca, or that I would be writing about it today….

My Art Nouveau cuerda seca vase


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