Armenian Ceramics in Jerusalem

In a world dominated almost exclusively by square stamps, here are three rare round ones – the only round stamps ever issued by Israel, featuring Armenian ceramic art in Jerusalem.

Armenian ceramic art in Jerusalem originated in the Turkish cities of Kutahya and Iznik. In these cities Armenian ceramic artists and Turkish craftsmen created tiles and pottery for different clients.

The working methods of the Kutahya and Iznik studios, which were brought to Jerusalem, involved a designer and a potter. The potter made the vessel and the head designer sketched his pattern on perforated paper. The design was transferred on to the vessel and then colored and fired in the oven.

The work of the Armenian ceramics artists in Jerusalem began in 1919, when David Ohannessian was invited by the British to come to Jerusalem from Kutahya to renovate the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. Ohannessian specialized in the production of tiles for monumental architecture and continued the traditions of Iznik and Kutahya by uniting geometric and arabesque shapes with floral motifs.

Neshan Balian, the potter, and Megherdich Karakashian, the designer, worked with David Ohannessian until 1922 when they left and opened their own joint studio. Their work and that of their sons, Stepan Karakashian and Setrak Balian and his wife, the designer Marie Balian, who later each opened their own studio, represents the breakaway from traditional repertoire of forms while becoming resident artists in Jerusalem.

Early Christian motifs, such as gazelles, birds and vine scrolls, played a major role in the repertoire of forms used in the Karakashian¬Balian studio's designs. They were inspired by the ancient mosaic pavements of the Holy Land. The 6th century "Bird" mosaic in the Armenian chapel in Jerusalem with memorial inscriptions to the Armenian unknown soldier, and the "Tree of Life" mosaic pavement from the Umayyad Palace near Jericho became major themes of the studio. Thus, this repertoire depicted an imaginary idyllic world of birds, gazelles, blossoms and tulips, with symbolism that was meaningful for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

The light that is captured by the glazed Armenian ceramic jars and tiles symbolizes the absorption of divine light on material objects. The flora and fauna are like miniature mirages. The ceramic objects function on several levels: on the sensual level of touch, on the aesthetic level as a vision of paradise and on the symbolic level as a promise.

Written by Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Faculty of the Arts, Tel Aviv University.

The Souvenir Sheet with its three stamps was issued in 2003. Design: Habib Khoury.