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Friday, May 29, 2020

Exploring the Four Main Themes of Islamic Art

Islamic art covers a vast geographical and chronological spectrum, from Spain to Southeast Asia over 1400 years. Though, despite all the differences, it is undeniable that there are common subjects and themes uniting the visual arts of the Islamic world. Over the centuries, these artists elaborated on four major subjects of decoration: calligraphy, geometry, vegetal and arabesque ornamentation, and figures. Let’s take a look at those themes.


Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. Arabic letters decorate objects ranging from ceramic bowls to marble buildings. Arabic script grew in importance following the revelation of the Qur’an from God to the Prophet Muhammad. Even before his death, Muhammad’s followers and associates had begun to transcribe the Qur’an. Calligraphers soon began to transform Arabic writing into an art form.

During the rise of Islam and the early period, between the 7th and 10th centuries, Kufic was used for copying Qur’ans and other manuscripts. It is characterized by its unconnected blocky letters that are evenly spaced. Kufic manuscripts of the Qu’ran were intentionally difficult to read—in order to slow down the readers so that they can concentrate on God’s word. Here is a page from a Qur’an dating between 850 and 1000, written in Kufic.

Fig. 1. Folio from a Qur’an Manuscript, Iraq or Syria, 9th-10th century, ink,
opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 
Anonymous Gift, 1985.365

However, as the Muslim population began to grow, calligraphers adopted more common scripts to make the Qur’an more legible and accessible. Between the 10th to the 15th centuries the “Six Pens” was developed, a group of rounded scripts that enhanced the readability by providing the reader with a full range of diacritical marks and vocalizations. They are naksh, thuluth, muhaqqaq, rayhani, riqa‘, and tawqi‘. Local scripts also developed. For example, nasta’liq, which developed and was used in Central Asia and Iran and spread to Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. Below is an example of Persian love poetry written in nasta’liq.

Fig. 2. Folio from a copy of the Divan (Anthology) of Amir Shahi, Iran,
probably Tabriz, 17th century, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Karl L. Briel, 1986.190

Calligraphers attempted to make their work look effortless. It was meant to be timeless and cerebral, a reflection of God’s permanence and immutability. Calligraphers painstakingly made sure that their work left no trace of the physical action it took to create it, or any mark of distinction. In other words, it is extremely difficult to attribute Islamic calligraphy to a calligrapher unless they signed their work.


Geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture, but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects.

Fig. 3. Pottery Fragment, Iran, 13th-14th century, stonepaste and polychrome glaze;
Museum Purchase, 1938.101.13

While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and the pre-Islamic empire of the Sasanians (r. 224-651 CE) in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from these classical traditions, and then complicated and elaborated upon them, particularly through the works of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists. This experimentation and elaboration led to new forms of decoration that stressed the importance of unity, symmetry, proportion, balance, and order.

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 basic shapes were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations. 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 and fluidity in its repetition and complexity, and it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well, such as vegetal patterns and figures.

Vegetal and Arabesque Designs

Ornamentation based on plants, stems, leaves, and flowers, adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. They are commonly employed alone or in combination with other types of forms of embellishment, such as calligraphy.

Fig. 4. Flowering Plant Beside a Pond, Iran, Safavid period, 17th century; cut silk,
voided satin velvet, with brocading. Museum Purchase, 1938.2

Like geometric patterns, vegetal decoration was inherited from pre-Islamic traditions from the late antique world of the Mediterranean basin and from the Sasanians. The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of semi-naturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns for these sources. This was 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 10th century that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged. There was a desire to create patterns that prompted the notion of infinite expansion and growth in all directions, which culminated into the most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as “arabesque”. The term was coined in the early 19th century following Napoleon’s famed expedition to Egypt.

Arabesques are composed of the same elements inherited from pre-Islamic traditions, such as vines and leaves, stems, and flowers. However, rather than being restricted to a geometric framework and confined space, the arabesque became the framework itself, controlling the space and its own movement within it. The entangled decoration of flowers and vines chiseled across the surface in the 19th-century Persian shield below is a prime example of the arabesque.

Fig. 5. Sipar (Shield), Iran, 19th century, steel, silver, brass, traces of gilded;
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1019


Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In most cases, figures are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, and thus were a crucial and prominent feature in manuscript illumination. Manuscript paintings acted as visual aids to the text, and therefore no restrictions to the representation of figures were imposed. Here is another example from a 14th-century copy of the Shahnama. It depicts the Sasanian king, Bahram Gur (r. 420-438 CE), hunting wild ass.

Fig. 6. “Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers”, from the “Great Mongol” Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Ilkhanid period, 1330s, opaque
watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.24

Since patrons of Islamic art were predominantly of royalty, nobility, or from the wealthy classes, most surviving works that depict figures that are not from narratives, show courtly figures. These courtly figures are typically shown in processions, hunting, lounging in gardens and feasting. The painting below, intended for an album, shows a male and female figure, in elegant dress, enjoying wine under a chinar tree.

Fig. 7. Youths Drinking Wine in a Landscape, Persian,
Qajar period, 19th century, opaque watercolor and gold
on paper; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Spahr, 1962.16

Animals were popular decorative figures and played secondary roles in illustrated manuscripts. They were commonly used to enhance scenes rather than to play any role in a narrative, although there are a few exceptions, such as the painting below, showing two camels locked in an eternal combat, and scientific studies and drawings.

Fig. 8. Two Camels in Combat, Iran, Safavid period, 17th-18th century, opaque watercolor,
ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.19

Fantastic figures also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were either derived from pre-Islamic mythological sources, or were created through the visual manipulation and experimentation of figural forms by artists.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
    May 29, 2020

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