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Style in Islamic Art (1250 – 1500 A.D)

Tomb of Öljeitü, Sultaniyyah, Iran © Prof. Ernst Grube

Ilkhanid style

The Ilkhanid style flourished in Iran. It was formed from three traditions, Chinese, Iranian and Islamic, under rulers descended from the Mongol conqueror Chingiz Khan. Chinese porcelain and silks were imported in large numbers, and local traditions such as lustre tilework flourished. At first, non-royal patrons commissioned the religious art, but once the Ilkhanids themselves became Muslim, in 1295, they too took on this role. The last Ilkhanid ruler died in 1353.

Chinese motifs

Chinese motifs became common in Islamic art after the 1250s. This tile from a Mongol palace in north-west Iran is a very early example. It is decorated with a Chinese dragon and has Chinese lotus flowers in the frieze above. To the Mongols, like the Chinese, the dragon was a symbol of political authority, but for the Iranians it was an evil monster to be hunted down by heroes. Chinese dragons soon appeared in this role in Iranian painting.

Iranian traditions

This tile is from the same palace as the one with the dragon, but the motif is Iranian. Because the first Ilkhanid rulers were not Muslim they could not use Islam to justify their power. They therefore relied on the much older tradition of royal rule enshrined in the Iranian national epic, The Book of Kings. This tile shows an episode from The Book of Kings in which King Bahram Gur goes hunting with his favourite slave girl.

Elegant calligraphy

After the Ilkhanid rulers of Iran finally converted to Islam in 1295, they began to commission copies of the Qur’an of an unprecedented size and magnificence. The script employed followed the rules of Arabic calligraphy developed by the great reformer Yaqut, who died in Baghdad in 1298. Manuscripts of this type continued to be produced over the course of the 1300s. In this example, the main text was written in a large, elegant style designed to convey the meaning without the slightest ambiguity.


Mamluk style

Mamluk minarets in Cairo, Egypt © Travel Library/Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd

The Mamluk style developed in Egypt and Syria after 1250, and it survived there long after the fall of the last Mamluk sultan in 1517. Large, bold inscriptions featured throughout this period, but the human and animal figures became smaller and less common as time passed. The complex geometric patterns and Chinese-style lotus scrolls also appeared in Ilkhanid art, but the use of badges of rank on buildings and objects was unique to Mamluk art.

Bold inscriptions

Large, boldly written inscriptions in Arabic dominate the decoration of many luxury objects from the Mamluk period. Quotations from the Qur’an are often found on items made for religious settings, but other texts were used when an item was made for a palace rather than a mosque. The text on this candlestick records the name of the man for whom it was made. It is repeated once on the base and once on the socket.

Badges of office

Badges of office were used by high-ranking officers in the Mamluk army, who were proud to have had held posts in the sultan’s household. The enamelled decoration of these two glass mosque lamps includes such emblems. One shows a sword and belonged to the sultan’s sword-bearer. The other shows a napkin and belonged to the master of the sultan’s wardrobe.

Complex geometry

Geometric patterns became more complex in Mamluk art. On the sides of the minbar, or mosque pulpit, are triangular panels made of hundreds of small pieces of wood and ivory. They are arranged in a pattern of straight lines that probably represents the rays of the sun. Complex geometry also underlies the three-dimensional pattern you can see above the door. It consists of rows of small niches and is called ‘muqarnas’.


Nasrid style

Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Spain © C.Gascoigne/Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd

The Nasrid style of around 1300 to 1450 was the last form of Islamic art to flourish in Spain. Very little art with figurative images is known from this period. Instead, Nasrid art is characterised by the rich decorative schemes found at the Alhambra, the Nasrid palace in Granada, and on a variety of objects. They combine the classic forms of Islamic ornament: linear geometric motifs, abstract plant-based patterns and Arabic calligraphy.


Abstract plant forms

The capital in the first image was made around 1370, but its shape is derived from that of the capital shown in the second image, which was made 400 years earlier. Although the general shape has continued, the overall effect is quite different. This is because the plant forms, such as the acanthus leaves around the base, have been turned into abstract motifs that have no apparent connection with the natural world.

Geometry and colour

In Nasrid art, the interlace patterns based on linear geometry are often relatively simple, and strong contrasts in colour make them easy to understand. Here, the designer has added variety and interest by filling the compartments with motifs of different kinds, including smaller, more complex interlace designs.

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