Islamic art and architecture

The Decorative Arts

Among the ceramic types are unglazed wares, molded pieces with the lead glaze of Hellenistic tradition, and most famous, the lusterware fragments. In 9th-century Islam the technique of tin-glazed ware was perfected. Lusterware was imported into Egypt and later made there. The Great Mosque of Al Qayrawan (c.862) is decorated with square luster tiles set in a lozenge pattern around the pierced marble prayer niche. The 9th cent. also saw the development of metalwork in a distinctive and powerful style under the Umayyads in Egypt. Skilled craftsmanship can be seen in rock-crystal carving, a continuation of Sassanid art, using floral motifs that became increasingly abstract.

From the 10th to the mid-13th cent. great strides were made in the arts; Egypt became a center of these arts and of calligraphy, which was of prime importance all over the Islamic world. Arabic script represents the expression of the will and strength of Allah, and as such is regarded as sacred by the faithful. One of Islam's most renowned calligraphers was Ibn Muqlah (d. 940) of Baghdad who invented the six most prominent cursive scripts. Certain scripts were favored for specific uses, such as Kufic for copying the Qur'an. The Kufic script, often executed in gold on parchment, was further animated by floral interlaces. Calligraphy was not used exclusively for two-dimensional works but also appears in architectural ornament, ceramics, textiles and metalwork. During this period calligraphy, bookbinding, papermaking, and illumination were developed and were held in highest esteem throughout Islam. The sloping cursive script most commonly used today, Nastaliq, was perfected in the 15th cent.

Before the 13th cent. rugs, silks, linens, and brocades were produced throughout the Islamic world, but only fragments remain; the same is true of delicate and highly refined carvings in wood and ivory. Early in the 13th cent. a school of secular manuscript painting arose in the Baghdad area. The pictures may be divided into two types: those that illustrate scientific works, descending directly from late Hellenistic models, and those that illustrate anecdotal tales and whose miniatures display lively detail.

In the middle of the 13th cent. the Mongol invasions devastated Iran and deeply scarred all Islam as far west as the Mediterranean Sea. However, after a period of acclimatization, the Chinese taste and artifacts imported by the Mongols revitalized the art of Iran, where book illustration reached great heights. With the arrival of the Seljuks in Iran came a new ceramic technique, fritware, similar to certain Chinese porcelains. The unique qualities of this ware enabled artists to create richly colored glazes such as deep blues from cobalt and turquoise from copper. Syria and Iraq continued to manufacture fine black-and-turquoise pottery. Textiles and rugs of great beauty were again manufactured throughout Islam, and in the 15th cent. Mamluk carpets were renowned for their designs of great complexity and their asymmetrical knots. Turkish ceramics reached their peak in the "Iznik" ware of the 16th and 17th cent. Distinctive green tiles are frequently used in the decoration of Turkish architecture.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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