Unlike the usual esotericism that characterises the language of art and its histories, the term ‘Islamic Art’ is seemingly intelligible. The phrase roots art in Islam, guaranteeing their irrefutable links and interdependency.
According to Sheila S. Blair’s and Jonathan M. Bloom’s article, The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflection on the Study of an Unwieldy Field, Islamic art is generally defined as ‘the art made by Muslim artists or artisans, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population’.1
The definition cited in their paper seems comparable to our initial thoughts – an art that is influenced and fundamentally entrenched in its religion. However, I would like to argue that the term ‘Islamic Art’ may allude to multiple definitions and features.
This paper will explore the diversity of the term ‘Islamic Art’ and its associated objects as well as structures. It should be noted that this paper seeks to outline multiple meanings of the term ‘Islamic Art’. This will hopefully encourage questions, thoughts, and discussion, all of which are directed at providing the reader with a more inclusive and broader appreciation of Islamic art.
Before delving into the ambiguity of the term, this piece will explore the three main themes of Islamic art, revealing the reasoning for its name. The themes are as follows:
1. Vegetal and Floral Patterns
2. Geometrical Motifs
The first theme refers to the abstract representations of nature and the environment. Whilst vegetal forms where plant branches, leaves and flowers were
distinguishable, their woven and interlaced arrangements often left their forms indiscernible (Fig. 1)
These patterns employed alone or in combination with the other two themes decorated a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles produced throughout the Islamic world.2
The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of semi-naturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns, followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons. It was not until the medieval period (tenth–twelfth centuries) that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as “arabesque.” This term, which simply means ‘in the Arab fashion’ was coined in the early nineteenth century following Napoleon’s famed expedition in Egypt, which contributed so much to the phenomenon of Orientalism in Europe and later in the United States.3
Comparably the second element of Islamic art–geometrical patterns, adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic structures whilst simultaneously functioning as a major
decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types.4 Consisting of, or formed from, simple forms like the circle and square, this motif was and continues to be combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, becoming one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Islamic art (Fig. 2).
However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom; in its repetition and complexity, it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well.5
The four basic shapes, or ‘repeat units,’ from which the more complicated patterns are constructed, are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multi-sided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include several different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.6
Although these first two categories appear to be largely devoid of symbolic and religious meaning, in his article Islamic Art at the V&A, Richard Tillinghast states the emphasis on pattern in Islamic art derives from a vision of the nature of Allah. He expounds that ‘Islamic artists have tended to see in the multiplicity of natural forms evidence of God’s infinitude’, simply meaning that Allah is everywhere and in everything.7 For example, a design of vines or flowers that leads quite naturally to a geometric exploration of pattern can be viewed as a visual manifestation of divinity. Following this reasoning, it seems likely that artists adopted both geometrical and vegetal motifs knowing its potentially divine symbolism.
Alternatively, the links between calligraphy and Islam are irrefutable. As the Qur’an was transmitted in Arabic, and that inherent within the Arabic script is the potential for developing a variety of ornamental forms, i.e., calligraphy, this third theme is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. Therefore, whilst calligraphy similar to the geometrical and vegetal motifs had a definite aesthetic appeal, its employment included an underlying talismanic component (Fig. 3).8
When Islamic art is viewed through these three themes, questions surrounding the accuracy of its name seem unnecessary. Instead of revealing the limitations of the term, these elements verify Islam’s fundamental presence in such forms of art.
1 Sheila Blair and Johnathan Bloom, ‘The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field.’ The Journal of Art Historiography (2003): 152.
2 Department of Islamic Art, ‘Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art.’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vege/hd_vege.htm.
3 Department of Islamic Art, ‘Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art.’
4 Department of Islamic Art, ‘Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art.’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geom/hd_geom.htm.
5 Department of Islamic Art, ‘Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art.’
6 Department of Islamic Art, ‘Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art.’
7 R. Tillinghast, ‘Art at the V&A’. The Hudson Review 60, 2 (2006): 294.
8 Department of Islamic Art. ‘Calligraphy in Islamic Art.’ In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cali/hd_cali.htm.
Blair, S. and J. Bloom. ‘The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field.’ The Journal of Art Historiography (2003): 152 – 84.
Department of Islamic Art. “Calligraphy in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cali/hd_cali.htm (October 2001).
Department of Islamic Art. “Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000– . http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vege/hd_vege.htm (October 2001).
Department of Islamic Art. “Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geom/hd_geom.htm (October 2001).
Tillinghast R. ‘Art at the V&A’. The Hudson Review 60, 2 (2006): 293 – 98.