Dictionary of Art
Artistic Cultures of Asia and the
The Art of Asia
The regional variations of Islamic art had a powerful impact on the
Old World, while from India to China, ancient civilizations and new
states continued to develop interesting styles of art. The golden age in
fapan was renowned for its creative techniques and beautiful objects,
which were to have a great influence on European art.
In the 12th century, 500 years after Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina, the
creed of Islam extended its influence from the western region of the
Mediterranean to the archipelagos of Indonesia. Muslim art, therefore, could no
longer be thought of as a regional culture, but instead could justifiably be
regarded as universal.
An important characteristic of Muslim history was the frequent invasions by
various tribes from the East and, in particular, from central Asia. In the 11th
century, seminomadic tribes of Turkish origin, who had converted to Islam (but
nevertheless retained much of their original culture) invaded first Persia and
then Anatolia. There were also incursions into Indian territories, but the
outcome there was variable, due to the diverse cultures (Hinduism, Buddhism, and
Jainism) that were already present. In this way, very different elements - some
Chinese, others from central and southwest Asia - were blended with ancient
traditions. The Islamic world was always able to assimilate artistic ideas, even
from distant sources, and unify them. From Spain to central Asia and India,
fundamental Muslim features were modified by strong, regional currents. An
important feature of Islamic society was the mobility of its populations. One of
the duties of a Muslim was to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, as a consequence,
the arts were nourished not only by the influences arising from foreign invasion
but also by those resulting from internal migration.
Dome of the Mausoleum of Sultan Kayt Bey, Cairo, 1472-74.
This is a splendid example of the so-called "florid" dome,
from one of the oldest and most important centres of Islamic art in the
Detail from the Seljuk Friday mosque at Isfahan.
The architectural complexity of
the muqarnas is highlighted
by the geometric pattern of the decoration.
Candlestick from Afghanistan, late 12th century. Al-Sabah
Metalworking is one of the many decorative arts that has always been highly
prized in the Islamic world. The transformation of an inert metal into a
glittering and precious object was a valued process. Islamic metal craftsmen,
heirs to the tradition set by the Sassanid and Byzantine civilizations, among
others, perpetuated and then reinterpreted these skills. The austere life led by
the prophet Muhammad inhibited the use of precious materials by artists, and the
amount of gold and silver inlaid in the bronze, brass, and copper articles was
always extremely small. It was in order to avoid the accusation of violating
Koranic precepts that the technique of damascening (ornamenting by etching or
inlaying) was developed. The astonishing virtuosity of the artists is evident in
articles produced by the cultivated 13th-century Mosul school, the more austere
Khorasan school, 14th- and 15th-century Iranian workshops such as the Shiraz,
and the Mameluke metalworking shops of Syria and Egypt. The most common objects
were large bowls, jugs, pitchers, and goblets, of which fine specimens still
exist in various museums around the world. In a class apart are the small
Veneto-Saracenic metal objects produced in Damascus and Cairo for the Western
market. They are distinguished by the Latin and Arabic signatures of the artists
and the coats of arms of the Venetian nobility.
THE MAMELUKE ARCHITECTURE OF CAIRO
Of all Muslim cities, Cairo was the most remarkable for its urban architecture.
Although few monuments survive as examples of its development in the Fatimid
(ad969-1171) and Ayyubid (1171-1250) periods, the Mameluke age (1250-1517) saw
an unprecedented surge of activity that is still visible today. Many huge
buildings, both secular and religious, attest to the role that architecture, in
the form of mosques, medersas or Koranic schools, and mausoleums -and sometimes
all three under the same roof -played in public life. The glory of the sultans
was measured in terms of the great architectural achievements. These massive
constructions were built in stone and almost all surmounted by domes, which
evolved in form from the primitive ribbed and spiralled Aytimish cupola (1383)
to the "florid" cupola, typified by the mausoleum of Sultan Kayt Bey. The outer
northern wall of the medersa mosque of Sultan Hasan (1356-61) is strikingly
modern and is one of the towering masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Such
works played a key part in expressing the importance of Cairo in the Near East
during the period of Mameluke rule.
Syria and Egypt
Syria and Egypt were governed by the Ayyubid (1171-1250) and Mameluke
(1250-1517) dynasties between the 12th and early 16th century. The monuments of
Damascus, the extraordinary citadels of Aleppo, and the entire urban centre of
Cairo (including its huge cemeteries) all date from these periods. The
architecture was highly original, both in terms of military fortifications (in
Syria, these were strongly affected by the architecture of the Christian
Crusaders) and of mosques, palaces, baths, and caravanserais (inns where
caravans stayed overnight). Black and white stone had already been widely used
for portals, while muqarnas (honeycombed niches) were employed not only
in traditional corners, but also in portals and even in the outer balustrades of
balconies in minarets.
The decorative arts of Syria and Egypt were equally impressive. Metalwares were
often embellished with gold and silver inlays. In the Mameluke age,
ornamentation featured inscriptions, applied with long strokes in flowing
cursive script, alternated with heraldic motifs. The art of blown and enamelled
glass - popular in Syria - demonstrated supreme skill and invention. Equally
skilled work was produced in textiles, and the fabulous silk materials made in
the imperial factories of Damascus, Cairo, and other places in the Near East
supplied a growing European market for light silks, damasks, and muslins.
Knotted Persian rug from Herat, late 16th century.
Museo Poldi Pezzoll, Milan.
RUGS AND CARPETS
The most famous of all Oriental arts linked with the Islamic tradition is
undoubtedly that of knotted rug- and carpet-making. This activity is very
ancient, as demonstrated by biblical references, with the oldest surviving
antique specimen dating from the fifth century BC. Handmade rugs initially
replaced the reed matting and animal hides of nomadic tents and gradually became
more elaborate. Woven on looms in Turkey, the Caucasus, Persia, central Asia,
and India, there were also workshops in Spain, North Africa, and Egypt. The
early carpets were generally knotted in wool, and only a few luxury specimens
were made of silk. Craftsmen used natural animal or vegetable dyes right up
until the end of the 19th century The type of knot (Turkish or Persian) involved
not only the use of a particular technique but also a special iconography.
Turkish rugs and carpets (and likewise those of the Caucasus and central Asia)
have predominantly geometrical decorative designs and are often based on the
repetition of a specific motif, known as the gul, which can vary in shape and
size. Colours -especially in examples of nomadic manufacture - are limited in
number. Persian carpets (as in the most famous examples produced by Safavid
workshops in the late 16th and 17th centuries' are notable for their floral and
naturalistic patterns (including hunting subjects), numerous colours, and a
detailed method that was also imitated in India. These carpets were admired by
traveller such as Marco Polo and by Renaissance artists such as Ghirlandaio,
Holbein, Lotto, Crivelli, Bellini, and Tintoretto.
Detail of the ai-'Attarin medersa, Fez, Morocco, 1325.
Fez was founded in 1275 as the capital of the Merinids, who centred
religious instruction around the institution of the medersa.
Incursions from the East continued over the centuries. The Mongols of Genghis
Khan (1162-1227) and his descendants invaded China and overran much of the Near
East, creating an empire that extended as far as Europe. Although these
vanquished peoples were rapidly converted to Islam, particular Chinese traits
remained in the general Muslim artistic heritage - the lotus design, for
example. Some towns were burned and sacked, never to recover, but the subsequent
period of peace, described as the pax mongolica, witnessed intense
commercial activity. Timur (1336-1405), also known as Tamerlane, set his seal on
the history of the Near East at about the end of the 14th and beginning of the
15th century. He conquered vast territories and challenged the might of the
growing Ottoman power in Anatolia, where he was finally defeated. The mosques
and other buildings of Samarkand. Tamerlane's capital, are clad in splendid
multicoloured tiles - Persian in taste and style - and bear lofty double domes
(a technique already employed by the Ilkhan dynasty). They provide shining
examples of the opulence and ostentation of the Timurid court. The heirs of
Tamerlane -Ulugh Beg, Shah Rukh, and Baysunghur - were renowned for being
generous patrons and promoters of literature. The 15th century saw the
production of many precious manuscripts, in particular those in which the arts
of writing, illustration, and bookbinding were combined to convey an overall
effect of great refinement and originality.
Medersa in Registan Square Samarkand Timund era.
This city in east
Uzbekistan was Tamerlane s capital in the 14th century.
Ceramic plate from Iznik, 16th century.
Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.
During the Ottoman era, the ancient Byzantine city of Nicaea in Asia Minor,
previously the seat of two church councils (in AD325 and AD787), became an
important centre of ceramic production. The range of wares included both
decorative ceramics and wall tiles. Apart from the abundance of local material —
Nicaea enjoyed excellent supplies of clay, water, and wood — there were two
other relevant factors: the entrepreneurial approach of Armenian craftsmen and
the decision to imitate Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. This was particularly
popular at court after the arrival in the early 16th century of many specimens
for the exclusive use of the sultan. The imitation of Chinese styles was soon
superseded, however, and new-colours such as turquoise, sage green, and purple
were introduced. However, the finest and most elegant pieces were those
decorated with the pigment known as sealing-wax red, or "Armenian bole". Known
in the 19th century as Rhodes-style red pottery (as it was thought to have been
produced on the island of Rhodes), such wares were already being imitated in
Italy in 1600. Enormous quantities of tiles were produced at Iznik on an
industrial scale but with exquisitely precise craftsmanship. They were used as
ornamentation for the mosques in Istanbul, which were commissioned by the great
sultans and designed by the celebrated architect Sinan. The most wonderful
example of this decoration, comprising dozens of different types of tile, can be
seen in the mosque of Rustem Pasha (c.1560).
Ceramic tile from the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque,
The Western Mediterranean
Western Islamic art and architecture in Morocco and Spain presents a fairly
uniform pattern, as seen principally in the productions of the Merinid dynasty -
notably the medersas, or theological schools, of al-'Attarin (1323-25) and Bu 'Inaniyya
(1348-59) at Fez in Morocco -and those of the Nasrids in Spain, also known as
the Moors. The glory of the latter dynasty (wiped out in 1492 by the definitive
Christian conquest) is best exemplified by the astonishing architecture of the
Alhambra in Granada. This fortified palace is laid out in distinct large areas -
the public section with the Court of Myrtles; the Tower of Comares, which
contains the Throne Room; and the private section, around the Court of the
Lions. The courtyard is crossed by two small channels that divide the area
according to the Koranic model of Paradise. Facing it are large rooms, which
through the use of stucco and the arabesque display a wholly successful
integration of architectural detail and fine decoration, particularly in the
muqarnas of the domes. This art form had a great impact on European architecture
and ornamentation. Initially practised in Spain by the mudejar artists (Muslims
working on Christian commission), it was reintroduced in the 19th century as
part of the neo-Moorish style. In the field of the decorative arts, of
particular note are the lustre pottery ware of Paterna, Mislata, and Manises,
the carpets known as the "carpets of the admirals" that featured heraldic
motifs, and the extraordinary textiles with decorated floral and geometrical
patterns that were manufactured during the Nasrid period in Granada, Alicante,
and Seville. Western art was also influenced by Islam in its workings of wood,
ivory, gems, and glass.
Ottoman silk cloth, 17th century.
Museo del Bargello,
In the early 14th century, a small local dynasty of central Asian stock under
the leadership of Osman ("Othman" in Arabic), gradually took control of the Near
East. These were the Osmanli or Ottoman Turks, who first conquered the Balkans
and then, in 1453, under Mohammed II (1432-81) defeated the Byzantines and
occupied Constantinople. Thanks to a succession of great sultans, in particular
Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), the Ottoman empire extended its territories,
dominating the whole of North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and the holy sites of Mecca
and Medina. In the 16th century, it spread westward into Europe as far as
Vienna. Although the empire was made up of many different races and had a number
of principal cities, it was nevertheless centrally organized, and society was
structured in a pyramidal
fashion with the sultan at its summit. Ottoman architecture owes most of its
splendour to its greatest architect, Sinan Koca Pasha (c. 1489-1580). His
designs were influenced by the Byzantine style of the Balkans and were based on
a central dome, as at Shehzade (1543-48), Suleimaniyeh (1550-57) in Istanbul,
and Selimiyeh (1569-75) at Edirne, with exedrae (recesses at the end of rooms),
half-domes, and secondary domes. This wholly rational architectural model was
easily recognized and exported all over the Ottoman-dominated world, from Yemen
to Cairo, from Damascus to Budapest, and from Sofia to Tripoli. The centralized
empire encouraged the gathering of court artists, who formed naqqashkane - art
workshops specializing in making decorative motifs that were then applied to
various media: glass, metals, ceramics (the pottery of Isnik is celebrated), and
textiles that rivalled the impressive wares of Venice.
View of the mosque of Imam at Isfahan, a great monument of the Safavid
Few examples of Islamic painting survive, whether on panel, canvas, or in the
form of a fresco. Although the Koran does not explicitly prohibit naturalistic
representations of humans, animals, and plants, tradition has always excluded
such artistic forms in public-places. In Muslim art, therefore, painting is
represented by the art of the miniature. These works act as the illustrations to
particular texts and, as such, constitute an integral part of the book in its
entirety. The style of the miniatures depended on the subject of the book -
science, an epic, romance, or history. For example, scientific books were
characterized by a very distinctive and traditional style. Texts were often
translated from the Greek for subjects such as astronomy (for example the Forms
of the Fixed Stars of f 009), astrology, medicine, herbals, and animals.
Miniature from the Shah-Nama ("Book of Kings") by
probably from Tabriz, c 1500.
British Museum, London.
Miniature by Bihzad illustrating the construction of a palace, Herat,
British Library London.
The most celebrated literary epics were Persian, written
by the poets Firdausi (the
famous Shah-Nama, or "Book of Kings") and Xizami, and were illustrated from the
f 4th century onwards. Renowned painters included Ahmad Musa and his pupil
Shams-al-Din (late 14th century) and Riza-i Abbasi (late 16th century). An
entirely separate genre, highly popular in the Ottoman empire, was that dealing
with the genealogy of sultans. The Indian schools of miniature painting (with
Hindu influence), on the other hand, had their own individual styles.