Persian and Islamic Art






Thanks to the prominent role played by Sassanid Persia in the raw silk trade from the Far East to the Mediterranean, a flourishing native silk-weaving industry developed, with Persian-manufactured goods being exported widely to the West. The textiles were remarkable for their exquisite quality and elegant designs, often serving as models for the
prestigious workshops of the cities of Constantinople and Antinoopolis, which proceeded to rework and reproduce them at least until the early medieval period. The sheer quantity of imitation textiles, coupled with their excellent quality, has sometimes led, in the case of certain styles, to serious problems of attribution. However, the textiles sent to the West to be used as protective coverings for the reliquaries of saints have been preserved in many European church treasuries and are almost certainly Persian. The most frequent decorative motifs found in Sassanid textiles are symbolic hunting scenes and figurations of animals, both real and fantastic, either singly or in facing pairs, in which case they are depicted beside a more or less stylized tree, perhaps the so-called Tree of Life. Sometimes the subject is set in a circle or oval, adorned with rows of pearls. This richly imaginative repertory of subjects also constitutes the colourful themes found in the rock carvings of Persepolis and Taq-i Bustan, and in the decorations of silver-gilt plates, typical of Sassanid art production.

Silk cloth from the altar of the Basilica of Sanf Ambrogio in Milan.
This design depicts a hunting scene, one of the recurrent themes in Sassanid art.


Sassanid silk cloth. Museum of the History of Textiles, Lyons.
Although badly torn, the stylized, naturalistic design of
 this rare example of Sassanid silk can still be appreciated.



The use of mosaic as a form of decoration was very shortlived in the Muslim world (if we exclude the mosaic pavements and walls in coloured marble or ceramics). It was, however, the most sacred and important buildings of Islam that adopted the decorative technique of mosaic in glass paste. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (ad687-9D, the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus (ad705-15), and the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain (ad785-987)
best exemplify the application of this technique. It is interesting to note that such decoration often reverted to classical and, most markedly, Byzantine motifs, suggesting that Christian artists were probably involved in making the panels. In spite of restorations, the mosaic that decorates the portico of the Great Mosqvie of Damascus is of the highest quality, its detailed architectural features alternating with motifs of plants and trees set in gardens with bridges and pools. This opulent setting, created by the brilliant sequence of images on a gold background, has been interpreted as a representation of the Muslim conception of Paradise, or as the cities conquered by the armies of early Islam.



Mosaic of the Tree of Life, Great
Mosque, Damascus. The mosque was
built by the Umayyad caliphs at the
beginning of the eighth century.

Detail of the mosaic arch, Great Mosque Cordoba.
This was built by the Umayyad caliphs of Spain in the tenth century.
The mosaic arch is to the right of the mihrab.

Detail of the mosaics in the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.
Built by the Umayyads, the Dome of the Rock was embellished by
Sultan Suleiman in the 16th century







The treasury, court-yard, and minaret of the Great Mosque of Damascus. This was built by the Umayyads over a former Byzantine church, which had previously been a pagan temple and was destroyed by al-Walid in ad705. it is considered to be one of the finest examples anywhere of Islamic art.

Imperial Islamic Art


The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. The name is taken from the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to Heaven. Completed in ao691, the Dome of the Rock is the oldest surviving masterpiece of Islamic art.

The Muslim era began officially in ad622, the year of the prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina. The rapid expansion of the new faith led to Arab armies conquering vast areas of territory, already occupied by advanced civilizations, within a span of barely a hundred years. The celebrated battle of Poitiers (ad732), on the southern borders of France, occurred a century after the Prophet's death and halted the Muslim advance into Europe. Eastward expansion was equally swift; by ad711 the adherents of the new faith already controlled part of central Asia and had reached the northern frontiers of India. The art that they developed was borrowed from established cultures - notably Byzantine to the west and Sassanid to the east - but such exchanges quickly led to the elaboration of a recognizably original and individual artistic language. Because the Islamic artist was a man of faith, analysis of his means of expression exclusively in terms of aesthetics would be misleading. His relationship to divinity prevented him from committing the sin of pride - only the Omnipotent could create and inspire life. Man was the servant of God (the Arabic word Islam means "submission"), and had needed therefore to avoid creating a finished, perfect representation of nature, but instead merely suggest a fragmentary interpretation. It was not uncommon, therefore, for there to be more than one perspective in the construction of a miniature and for this to be irregular, for a drawing to go outside its borders; or for the design of a composition (on a carpet or panel) to be interrupted by a border or frame, as if to suggest that the work continued and could only be partially shown. Muslim ornamentation avoided representations of humans or animals (at least in works designed for public view) and adopted calligraphic, geometrical, or abstract floral (arabesque) motifs. The results were highly imaginative and varied compositions, which, in the case of geometric ornamentation, have been likened to the fantastic images achieved by a kaleidoscope. Motifs using the arabesque, on the other hand, seem to have been inspired directly by reality. As for calligraphy, the fundamental importance given to Arabic (the language of the Koran) was manifested in the detailed study and development of styles of writing - from the cursive to the Kufic - and the script of the earliest Koran manuscripts.
Jerusalem and Damascus were the main centres of an art style that would acquire a deep sense of awareness and identity in the years of Muslim expansion. Damascus was chosen as the capital of the new empire ruled by the hereditary Umayyad dynasty (ad661-750). Little is known about the art objects from this period, but a few religious and secular monuments survive, the most significant of which are the Dome of the Rock (ad687-9D and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jeaisalem, the Great Mosque in Damascus (ad705-15), several fortresses, and a group of palaces built in the Syrian-Palestinian desert. Despite the reconstruction and restoration wrork that have taken place over the centuries, these structures remain important monuments: the mosques for their individual architecture and decoration, which includes glass-paste mosaics (a technique that subsequently became almost completely neglected by Islamic artists), and the palaces for their stuccowork and paintings.


The Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia.
Built by the Aghlabid emirs in the ninth century, the mosque's structure has remained intact.
It is the oldest in the Western world.



Page of the Koran in Kufic script, eighth to ninth century. Bibliotecs Ambrosiana, Milan. Although incomplete, it is one of the oldest in existence.


The sacred book of the Muslims is the Koran, revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad, who in turn recited its verses to the faithful. Oral tradition is highly valued in Islam; it was only after the death of Muhammad in ad632 that, in order to avoid misunderstandings and violations, it was decided to gather together all the written sections of the Koran that "were already in circulation. Given that the Koran is in Arabic and signifies the "divine word", the importance of Arab script (Semitic, with a 28-symbol alphabet) was considerable in art as well as literature. Of such elegance as to enable the creation of a wide variety of graphic forms and styles, it  was used by every Muslim community. The manuscript format was so sacred that it was not until 1787 that the first printed Koran appeared, in St Petersburg. Indeed, religion plays such an important role in everyday life — and is often represented by writing rather than images, which are forbidden in public — that the veritable iconography of the Muslim world is the highly decorative script of calligraphy. Over the centuries, numerous styles were developed, from Kufic, the Arabic alphabet used to write the original Koran in the time of Muhammad, to various cursive scripts.

Page of the Koran in Kufic script, probably ninth century. Russian Academy of Science, St Petersburg. The gold, red, and black colour and the elegance of the text attest to the importance of the sacred book.




Among the earliest architectural achievements of the Muslim conquerors who had settled in Palestine and Syria was a series of buildings known as the "desert castles". These were fortified camps, palaces, hunting pavilions, citadels, and workshops, scattered over vast areas of what is now desert in Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. Dating from the end of the Umayyad period, in about ad750, these buildings show how the late antique models of Byzantine edifices were adapted to the changing needs and demands of Islamic society. A striking example is the pavilion, with adjacent bathhouse, of the palace of Qusayr Amra (AD724-43) in the Jordanian desert. The exterior of the stone building is very compact, with three domed chambers. The interior consists of a large reception hall with an apse where the caliph sat, flanked by two alcoves. The decorations on all the walls are tempera paintings (the fresco technique was unknown), showing the coronation of the monarch (depicting the six great sovereigns of antiquity), hunting scenes, baths, acrobats, and female dancers. The style is provincial Byzantine with Coptic features. Entrance to the bathhouse is via a small, domed room adorned with paintings of the night sky. The importance of the pavilion derives from the variety and rarity of its decoration, for once artistic theory was codified, Islamic wall-paintings were to become scarce.

Wall-painting from the palace of Qusayr Amra, Jordan.


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