Islamic Art and Architecture

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Islamic Art

"Islamic Art and Architecture." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online (accessed September 22, 2016).

Islamic Art and Architecture

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Islamic art and architecture is generally taken to include artistic achievements in those lands where, from the 7th century on, Islam became the dominant faith. The Islamic tradition encompasses the arts of the Middle East; North Africa; Spain; Anatolia (see Turkey), as well as the Balkans; Central Asia; and northern and central India from the time each of these areas became Muslim. This was as early as A.D. 622 in parts of Arabia and as late as the 15th century for Istanbul, parts of the Balkans, and central India. Generally excluded from consideration in this context have been the arts of the following: eastern Africa; sub-Saharan Africa; Indonesia; Malaysia; the Philippines; and Muslim parts of China. These areas did not adopt Islam until relatively late (generally after the 16th century). By that time the artistic creativity of the central Muslim lands had weakened; their arts tend to be closer to local traditions.

General Characteristics

Certain key features emerged that came to characterize the Islamic style of art and architecture during the first millennium of Islamic art (about 650–1650). These shared characteristics appeared despite the differences in environment between such diverse lands as Mediterranean Spain, steppic Central Asia, mountainous Algeria, arid Arabia, and the subtropical Indus Valley—and despite the cultural diversity of distant ethnic groups. The Islamic tradition drew on complex inheritances. These included Late Roman art and Early Christian art of the Byzantines and the Copts, as well as the Sassanian art of Persia. It also drew on lesser influences from Mongol, Central Asian, and Indian sources. (See alsoByzantine Art and Architecture; Early Christian Art and Architecture; Persian Art and Architecture; Roman Art and Architecture.)

Function of Art.  

From its inception, Islamic art was an art created for the setting of daily life. Most religious architecture (notably the mosque and the minaret) was built less as a testimonial to Allah than as a place where people could best express their piety and learn the precepts of the faith. Islamic painting developed primarily in the form of book illustration and illumination. It was also used to decorate buildings. Such painted works were generally created not as ends in themselves but to help explain a scientific text or to enhance the pleasure of reading history or literature.

The Islamic style in the field of the decorative arts is distinguished by the novelty and extraordinary quality of techniques used in the making of everyday utilitarian objects. These techniques include the application of lustrous glazes and rich colors in ceramics and glassware; intricate silver inlays, which transform the surfaces of bronze metalwork; lavish molded stucco and carved wood wall panels. It also includes the endlessly varied motifs woven into textiles and rugs. In nearly all instances the objects decorated—whether cooking cauldrons, candlesticks, or pen cases—served fundamentally practical purposes. Their aesthetic effect was aimed above all at making the daily activities or architectural setting more pleasurable.

Sources of Patronage.  

The vast majority of surviving examples of Islamic art reflect the patronage of a wide social spectrum. Most of the patronage came from the urban world of the great Islamic cities. Cities were the centers of Islamiclearning and of mercantile wealth—from Córdoba in Spain to Samarkand in Central Asia. Thousands of objects were excavated in the Persian city of Nishapur (ceramics); in Fatimid Cairo (lusterwares); and in Herat, Afghanistan, or Mosul, Iraq (inlaid bronzes). Most were made for the urban bourgeoisie. The styles of the objects reflect the preferences of these patrons. Variations in quality presumably reflect local variations in price and standards of appreciation.

In addition to the arts created for the urban strata of the Islamic world was a splendid art of kings and emperors. Little has been preserved of this regal art; only with imagination is it possible to reconstruct the secluded life of the 9th-century imperial palaces at Samarra (in present-day Iraq) or the pleasure pavilions of the Safavids in Iran. An example of the latter is the 17th-century Ali Qapu and Chehel Sutun in Isfahan. An exquisitely ornamented and rare rock-crystal ewer (preserved in the San Marco Museum in Venice) provides a hint of the richness of 10th- and 11th-century Fatimid art in Cairo. The countless treasures in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul attest to the enormous wealth of the Turkish Ottomans.

Decorative Character of Art.  

A fundamental characteristic of much Islamic art is its powerfully decorative or ornamental quality. A variety of arbitrary geometric, floral, or other types of designs—such as the swirling and interlacedarabesque—tend to predominate over specific motifs taken from nature or from an idealized version of the natural world. With some exceptions, the vast majority of motifs (which decorate everything from architectural monuments to manuscript borders) do not seem to bear direct relation to a visually perceived reality. Even calligraphy—the art of beautiful handwriting—often seems removed from the meaning of the words depicted; it functions instead more as a decorative element. Decorative Islamic art contrasts sharply with the representational art of the West. There, more precise iconographic meanings are attached to most artistic forms.

Whether in fact the Muslim world may also have sought to transmit a concrete message through its abstract forms is a subject of debate among scholars. Several possibilities have been suggested. One is that the Muslims tended to reject the representation of the visible in their art to emphasize that visible reality is but an illusion and that Allah alone is true. Abstraction thus became a way to make a very specific theological point. Another theory holds that an art that sought above all to enhance the setting of human activities—rather than to order human behavior or beliefs—was by necessity compelled to develop abstract forms rather than forms with a single obvious meaning.

An excellent example of the difficulty involved in even defining this problem lies in the muqarnas (sometimes called the honeycomb or stalactite motif). Invented in Iran in the 10th century and eventually found everywhere from Spain to India, this form of ceiling decoration is composed of small three-dimensional units. The muqarnas appears at first glance to be an arbitrary and strictly ornamental architectural motif. Yet in Iranian domes of the late 11th and the 12th century, the muqarnas ceiling carries a structural significance; the parts of the design are carefully aligned with support thrusts from the dome. Inscriptions and the particular sequence of designs indicate that the muqarnas ceiling was meant to symbolically represent the dome of heaven. This can be seen in the intricately faceted ceilings of the Moorish Alhambraoutside Granada (in Spain) or the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in Palermo, Sicily. Other existing examples show that many seemingly abstract motifs in Islamic art carried subtle layers of meaning. These were discernible either through their context or through an inscription.

Iconoclastic Tendency.  

Another characteristic of Islamic art is what is generally called its iconoclasm; this refers to a rejection of the representation of religious images and other living beings. In many ways the term iconoclasm is not an appropriate one because no formal doctrinal statement against such representations appeared in the Koran, but only in the later Hadith (traditions). Even there the statements are incidental and partial (the decoration of baths or floors is exempted from the prohibition). Yet it is true that early Islamic art modified the art of previous centuries by tending to avoid the representation of humans and animals. Whether this reluctance was derived from a still-undetected religious prohibition or from a search for a cultural identity distinct from the identities of other traditions remains a matter of scholarly debate

Historical Development

No universally accepted chronology of Islamic art and architecture exists. The following three major periods are nevertheless generally recognized: the Formative period, A.D. 650–1000; the Middle period, 1000–1250; and the Late period, 1250 on.

The Formative Period.  

The Muslim world created its own identifying forms from about 650 to 1000—under the Umayyad and early Abbasid caliphates as well as under the first local dynasties in Spain, Egypt, and eastern Iran. These forms ranged from mosques to the abstract design known as the arabesque. Major monuments from this period are found throughout the Islamic world—the mosques of Córdoba, in Spain; Ibn Tulun, Cairo; Damascus; Samarra; and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. They can also be found in private palaces such as Khirbat-al-Mafjar in Palestine; royal palaces such as Samarra's in Iraq; the urban architecture of Baghdad; tin-glazed ceramics in Iraq, Egypt, and northeastern Iran; woodwork and rock-crystal carving in Egypt; and carved ivories in Spain.

Yet the most influential and perhaps most creative area was Iraq; it remained the center of the Muslim world until the early part of the 11th century. It was probably in Iraq during the 9th century that the technique of lusterware originated—along with other uniquely Islamic forms of decorative art. Some of the more imaginative ceramics have also been found in Nishapur in eastern Iran.

The Middle Period.  

The year 1000 marks the beginning of the Middle period of Islamic art; this brilliant period was cut short by the Mongol invasion during the early 13th century. A large number of local styles were formed in this period: Eastern Iran; western Iran; Iraq; Egypt; Anatolia, newly conquered by the Seljuks; North Africa; and Spain. All of these places acquired their own stylistic and iconographic peculiarities. Their aesthetic differences corresponded to political and social differences among provinces and the weakening of central authority. Cairo; Nishapur, in Iran; Herat; Isfahan; and the Anatolian center of Konya rivaled the early Islamic capital city of Baghdad in cultural and artistic importance.

Common threads were nonetheless maintained in the art of these diverse centers. In almost all Islamic cities an architecture of citadels and city walls rather than of palaces reflected the new power of a military elite. Small private mosques—as well as mausoleums for holy men and madrasahs (madrassas; schools of law and theology) or khanqahs(semimonastic establishments for holy men and women)—were built next to the single mosques. This proliferation of architectural complexes in Islamic cities illustrates the growing complexity of the Muslim religious system during this period. Throughout the Muslim world a new emphasis was given to external forms of architecture as well as to themuqarnas.

New or reinvented techniques in the decorative arts—minai, or enameling in ceramics; luster painting on glass; and silver inlays in metalwork—made it possible to increase the number and character of illustrated topics. Quite suddenly in the latter part of the 12th century, during this period of intense artistic creativity, books began to be illustrated. The reasons for this proliferation of new forms of representation are difficult to assess. In part it reflected new contacts with other cultures (notably, India and the Christian West). It probably also reflected an internal need for more complex expressions of a richer culture. The Middle period was, as well, an era when mysticism began to affect all aspects of Muslim piety and when local cultural traditions (especially those in Iran) began to reassert themselves.

Late Period.  

After the devastating Mongol invasions of 1220–60, the Muslim world became more strictly divided both politically and culturally. The separate geopolitical entities that emerged tended to remain independent of one another. They were still frequently subject to common influence. The principal independent cultural areas were the Muslim West, or the area comprising Egypt, Palestine, and Syria; the Ottoman Empire; Iran; and Muslim India.

Islam slowly disappeared from Spain; the culmination was the fall of Granada in 1492. Moorish art is distinguished primarily by brilliant geometrical ornamentation adorning mostly private architectural monuments. This striking decorative tradition was maintained by the Mudéjars (Moors remaining in Spain after its reconquest by the Christians). It also exerted a strong influence on later Spanish styles of craftwork and architectural decoration. Most of western Islamicart tended to be conservative and repetitive—with the exception of the unique masterpiece of the 14th-century Alhambra palace. (See Moorish Art and Architecture.)

From 1258 to 1517 the area comprising Egypt, Palestine, and Syria was ruled by the unique system of military slaves known as the Mamelukes. Its major artistic achievement was in architecture. Examples are the multitude of Mameluke monuments still extant in the cities of Cairo, Jerusalem, and, to a lesser degree, Damascus and Aleppo. For complex economic and social reasons, the affluent classes invested in vast architectural projects that transformed these cities. The buildings are traditional in function. Yet their forms and techniques—superb stonework, along with brilliantly decorated gates and minarets and complex domes—display a level of sophistication and quality hitherto unknown in the Islamicworld. Ranked among the masterpieces of world architecture is the immense madrassa of Sultan Hasan in Cairo. It was built around a square court surmounted by four lofty cross vaults and crowned by a hugh cupola; it houses the mausoleum of the sultan.

The Ottoman dynasty was born in western Anatolia. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered the Balkans and took Constantinople; by 1520 they had taken nearly all Islamic lands around the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire was a strong and centralized state. It concentrated its creative energies on the development of a uniquely logical mosque architecture. As early as the 14th and 15th centuries in Bursa and Iznik, the Ottomans chose to use the single dome as the focal compositional element of their monuments. Their fascination with the cupola was in large part inspired by the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. The church was converted into a mosque and culminated in the 16th-century masterpiece of the Suleiman (Süleymaniye) mosque in Istanbul. Its architect was Sinan; he created numerous monuments in Edirne and Istanbul. These works in turn became types adapted for use from Bosnia to Egypt. Ottoman decorative art (especially ceramic objects and tiles and miniature painting) is largely derivative of other traditions. Many examples are noteworthy for the exceptional precision of their execution.

Iran was most strongly affected by the Mongol invasions. Yet this traumatic experience led to a rejuvenation of the arts (despite continual upheavals). Persian architecture under the Il-Khans (Ilkhanids; c.1256–1353), as well as the Timurids(1370–1502) and Safavids (1502–1712)—and several other minor dynasties—exhibited a whole gamut of styles. The styles ranged from the grandiloquent monumentality of the Soltaniyeh mosque to the intense piety of Samarkand's mausoleums to the colorful brilliance of the monuments around Isfahan's Masjid-i-Shah mosque. These imaginative and inventive traditions were remarkably attuned to the composition of Persian religious thought. Especially impressive is the development of Persian painting. Persian literature was illuminated through a striking array of painting styles—rough and brutal in the early part of the 14th century and poetically complex in the 15th. Examples include the Shah Namah (Book of Kings) and the lyrical poems of Nezami. Persian painting was marked by precisely observed details of everyday life in later times.

Islamic India was ruled for several centuries by various military dynasties; it reached its apogee farther east under theMoguls (1526–1707). Their architecture was often inspired by Persia; it rapidly acquired its own identity through the use of local materials and techniques. Mogul achievements in architecture are most impressive in such celebrated buildings as the Taj Mahal or the urban complex of Fatehpur Sikri. Persian influence was also strongly felt in painting in the early years. Mogul art soon became uniquely inspired by the remarkable precision and human insights apparent in native Indian traditions of painting. (See Mogul Art and Architecture.)

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