The Abbasid style emerged in Iraq between 750 and 850, when the Abbasid dynasty was at the height of its power. The Abbasid caliphs constructed huge and lavishly decorated palaces at Baghdad and Samarra and stimulated the production of many forms of luxury art. Under their patronage, art began to move away from its pre-Islamic roots, and the new techniques and more abstract styles adopted at this time had a long-lasting influence on the Islamic art of later centuries.
This page is from a manuscript of
the Qur’an, the divine revelation on which Islam is based. In making beautiful copies of the Qur’an, calligraphers used refined forms of the Arabic script governed by a strict system of proportions. This page is in the ‘plump’ Kufic style, the earliest
form of Arabic calligraphy. The Kufic style became characteristic of Abbasid art and was used for inscriptions on buildings and objects. The bowl shown here is inscribed with blessings on its owner.
The vine and other fruit-bearing plants had long been used to suggest fertility and prosperity in the art of the Middle East. They continued to be popular in Abbasid art. The ivory container is carved with a network of vine scrolls, very similar to those used in Roman art. The fragment of stucco once decorated a wall in an Abbasid palace in Iraq. It also represents a vine leaf, but here the motif resembles those found in the art of ancient Iran.
Life at court
Following an ancient Iranian tradition, the figures on lustre bowls from Abbasid Iraq usually depict life at court. Here the seated prince holds a wine glass, while the stag motif may have been taken from a larger hunt scene. These designs were not meant to imitate life. Similar designs appeared on more prestigious dishes of silver or gold, and the background of dots imitates the texture of an engraved metal surface.
Spanish Umayyad style
The Umayyad dynasty seized power in Spain in the 750s and broke away from the Abbasid empire. As a result, a local style of art developed, especially after 929 when a later ruler declared himself caliph. The Umayyads employed many Roman and Byzantine forms, probably to distinguish themselves from their Abbasid rivals, but they shared with the Abbasids the use of Arabic inscriptions and stylised leaf motifs. They died out after 1031, but the Umayyad style remained influential in Spain and Morocco.
The ‘composite’ capital, with acanthus leaves carved in the round, seems completely Roman. But the Arabic inscription along the top edge, carved in the Kufic style, shows it is from Umayyad Spain. The second capital is more obviously Islamic. The overall shape is still Roman, but most of the surfaces were left flat. They were then undercut with a continuous network of plant motifs. This became the typically Umayyad form of capital.
The Umayyads followed the Byzantine rulers in commissioning exquisite ivory caskets for their palaces. But the political and religious subjects the Byzantines depicted could not be used in an Islamic state. So the Umayyads created their own designs, based on life at court. On this casket princes sip wine and listen to music. They are surrounded by paired animals set in roundels, a motif that also appeared on the silk textiles of the time.
Script and scrollwork
Ivory caskets from Umayyad Spain often have an Arabic inscription around the edge of the lid telling us who they were made for. The elegant script is a later form of the Kufic style – taller, more slender and with leaf-like flourishes. On this casket, the remaining surfaces are covered with a symmetrical pattern of leafy scrolls, also found on a bigger scale on the walls of Umayyad palaces. The leaves are pierced with small holes, perhaps for small chips of gemstone.
In 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt and founded Cairo as their capital. They commissioned many of the luxury arts favoured by their Abbasid rivals in Iraq, such as lustre ceramics and carved rock crystals. But Abbasid power had now faded, so it was easy for the Fatimids to outdo them. Their art shows a well-integrated, more clearly ‘Islamic’ style, without obvious links to the earlier Roman and Iranian art. Fatimid rule ended in 1171.
This outstanding example of Fatimid rock crystal has paper-thin walls and an elegant shape. The decoration is arranged with great care, so that carved and plain surfaces are in balance. The main motif is a bird of prey attacking a gazelle, probably meant as a symbol of power. Neither this design nor the free-flowing pattern of leafy scrolls show any direct connection with nature. They were copied from other prestigious art forms.
The human figure
The human figures in Fatimid art are often drawn with great decorative skill. On this fine lustre-painted bowl, details have been scratched through the lustre to prevent the design becoming too heavy. The man has standard features, with joined-up eyebrows and eyes drawn with a line extending to the temples, but he holds a lamp and is clearly a priest of the Coptic church. The cypress tree seems to suggest a monastery garden, a common theme in Arabic poetry.
Warding off evil
This is an extremely rare ivory and wood panel from Fatimid Egypt. The intricate pattern was made by using many small pieces of ivory veneer into a wooden base. The six-pointed star in the centre is much simpler than later geometric motifs from Egypt. It represents the ‘seal of Solomon’, which was believed to ward off bad luck.