Saturday, May 9, 2015

Islamic Art – Part I[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Islamic Art is as varied as any religious based art. However, due to its beginnings and because of the tenets of its religion it is unique. It is produced against a highly complex backdrop of history, from lands that feature deserts, mountains, swamps and steppe. It encapsulates a plethora of dynasties that ruled these territories and so retells images of wars, rebellions, invasions and civil strife.

Just as we relate “pointillism of Dreamtime Art” to the Australian Aboriginals and art decorated by Chinese or Japanese characters coming from East Asia, so the presence of Arabic script invites us through a door in which the religion of Islam is predominant. Muhammad received God’s revelation in the early 7th Century. Since his death in 632 AD the 28-letter Arabic alphabet has been used by Arabic speakers across North Africa and the Middle East.

The second primary element in Islamic art is geometry. While geometric ornament can be found in Roman and Late Antique mosaics and textiles, it attains a much more dominant role in Islamic Art. Star shapes, knots and polygons appear in all forms of Art but in Islamic Art these architectural decorations appear to anchor the act of engagement in a highly versatile and extremely complicated manner.

Apart from the Arabic script, a type of vine scroll named “arabesque” is the mainstay of Islamic design. Developed from the late Antique scroll and acanthus leaf decorations of the Eastern Mediterranean regions (once controlled by the Romans), arabesque acquired its own distinctive forms in Islamic times. Based on the bindweed the defining characteristic of the arabesque is the infinite “return” of the vine, combined with the varied forms of its flowers and leaves, in pairs, either split or whole. Arabesque decoration appears in the gold illumination surrounding the chapter headings in the earliest Qur’ans.

There is no better book to instruct what constitutes Islamic Art than S.R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, The British Museum Press, London (2005) – a must buy for your library. Most on the images present below have been procured from this book.

Islamic Art
Arabic Script
Even in the 7th Century, the form of the Arabic script depended on its use. Squared and highly stylized letter shapes were employed in early Qur’ans and on coins called kufic. Although this style of writing was eventually superseded by scripts with rounded letters for copying Qur’ans, it continued to be used for inscription in stone on buildings, and tombstones, on wooden panels and in chapter headings of books as well as portable objects.

The two images below are details from the border of a Qur’an, Iran and India (?), 14th Century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

The phrase ”peace be upon him” from the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet) is written in kufic script. The Hadith inscription may be later than the Qur’anic text.

The majestic muhaqqaq script in which the words – “and God” – are copied is one of six styles of writing perfected by the 13th Century calligrapher Yacqut in Baghdad.

From the 14th Century onwards, each Ottoman sultan had an individualized monogram called a tughra, consisting of the names of the ruler and his ancestors at the foot of three tall shafts, with two ovals extending to the left. Tughras were placed at the head of the official Ottoman documents and letters. The two images below are from the tughra of the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

Tughra of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66), Ottoman Turkey, mid-16th Century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

Detail from the tughra of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. This writing outside of the emblem itself, is in divani script, a style specifically used by scribes within the court administration.

Geometry lies at the heart of Islamic design. Just as the rhombic dot is the basic unit for determining the proportions of Arabic letters, so the form of plan geometry – circles, triangles, quadrilaterals and polygons, and their segments – underpin the non-figurative decoration of both objects and structures in Islamic Art and architecture. From the simple polygons and rectangles used as framing devices to the highly complex interlaces of stars and irregular polygons, geometry functions as an organizing principle on the surfaces of the whole range of media.

Infinite knot details from a Qur’an, Iran and India (?), 14th Century. Ink, opaque water color and gold on paper. The intersection of the red lines at the centre of the knot in the photograph above forms a rhombus, which is embellished by the angled loops above and below and tear-shaped extensions to the left and right.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. This dome, tiled with inscribed gold and green six-pointed stars and red hexagons, is a fanciful interpretation of geometric architectural ornament. Such tiles are more often employed on walls than on domes, and in Mughal India most domes are not tiled at all.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The latticework of these two windows consists of octagons and squares on the left and hexagons on the right. Each Polygon is bisected by horizontal and vertical lines.

Detail from “Farid observes a drunken scene”, Dastan-I Amir Hamza, Mughal India, ca. 1562-79. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The head of the large mace is decorated with an eight-pointed star with radiating outlines and encompasses irregular hexagons and octagons before resolving in more stars.

Like geometric ornament, the arabesque – a scroll with repeating and reciprocating leaf and floral elements attached to a vine – serves as a framing and filler device in Islamic Art. Developing from Late Antique acanthus and vine scrolls, the arabesque is characterized by its rhythmic undulation. Like geometric ornament, the arabesque can imply an infinite design with no defined beginning or end. Additionally, the reciprocal course of the vine in an arabesque is more geometric than natural. One of the contributing factors to the infinite pattern of the arabesque is the growth of leaves, flowers or other motifs generated from one another rather than from a single stem.

Detail of a pilgrim bottle, Syria, 1340-60. Gilded and enameled glass. The central portion of the bottle reveals that the glass blower has scratched veins into the leaves and has added three small red touches, echoing the red enamel of the border and “wings” that curl out to either side. The intertwining of the vine suggests an arabesque on two levels, with no starting or ending point. Surrounding the central trefoils, the spiral of an inhabited scroll endow it with a rhythm matched by the lively animal – bird – and human-headed leaves in this arabesque.

Pen box, Western Iran, signed by Mahmud ibn Sunqur, dated 1281. Cast brass inlaid with silver and gold. The arabesque on the sides of the pen box consists of animals and birds instead of leaves. Also, each section of the arabesque springs from a central knot based on a rhombus.

[1] S.R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, The British Museum Press, London (2005).

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