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Foliage motifs in Islamic art before Mongol invasion

Bowl, Binkat (modern Uzbekistan), 10th century, Samanid or Ghaznavid dynasty, Mardjani collection

Bowl, Binkat (modern Uzbekistan), 10th century, Samanid or Ghaznavid dynasty, Mardjani collection

In the middle of 13th century Mongols came to Eastern Iran. In 1256 they founded Ilkhanid dynasty that reigned in Iraq till 1340 and in Iran till 1353. In a field of art Mongol invasion brought Chinese influence to Islamic artistic tradition, Chinese way of floral motif depiction changed the face of Islamic art.

But the period between the genesis of Islam and the Mongol invasion has a lot of interesting facts to observe. Great historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar (1929-2011), in his book ‘The Formation of Islamic Art’ points out that any kind of change in art experiences two moments. The first one is absolute time that gives the start to any kind of change and the second one is relative time which ‘is defined by the moment when a culture as a whole has accepted and is transformed by changes which in themselves may be dated precisely’ [2]. For Islamic art the formation started with a birth of Islam and a period from 7th to 13th century was a time when truly Muslim forms derived as a result of synthesis of Islamic faith and local artistic traditions.

7th -8th centuries and 11th -12th centuries experienced a rapid spread of Islam. Certain geographical place and historical time in Islamic history was represented by a ruling dynasty. Some dynasties left more artifacts than the others. In early history of Islamic biomorphic patterns Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Samanid, Buyid and Ghaznavid, and also Seljuk ‘styles’ of depiction are the most recognizable.

Umayyad dynasty ruled Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Iraq in 661-750, and a part of modern Spain in 711-1031. The foliage decoration in Umayyad time was very close to Byzantine and Ancient Greek vines, palmettes, flower rosettes and trees. Mosaics of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Great Mosque in Damascus, Great Mosque of Cordova, wood carvings of Al-Aqsa mosque, stone carvings and mosaics of Syrian and Palestine desert palaces and castles, decorations of royal residence of Madinat al-Zahra in Cordoba show no unique Islamic features. Grabar emphasizes that among vegetal motifs ‘it does not seem that a single new design was invented in early Islamic times. What did change enormously was the geographical distribution of ornament’ [2].

During Abbasid dynasty reign in Iraq, Iran, Eastern Mediterranean (totally from 750 to 1258) so-called ‘beveled style’ of biomorphic decoration developed. ‘Beveled style’ motif is a ‘symmetrical, abstract vegetal form’ [4], showing a repetition of curved lines with spiral terminals. Abbasid caliphate founded the city of Samarra in Iraq. Samarra architecture was lavishly decorated with stucco carved or molded into variety of designs. Stucco was used in pre-Islamic Iran, but at the time of Abbasids the use of it spread rapidly all over the Islamic world. Wood carved and painted on ceramic beveled motifs was also widespread in Muslim decoration at this time.

Samanid, Buyid and Ghaznavid dynasties ruled Iran and Khorasan province in 10th-11th centuries. A number of ceramic ware with such vegetal decorations like palmettes, pomegranate fruits, flower rosettes and bouquets were found [1]. They are highly abstract and sometimes remind children’s drawings.

The art of Fatimid dynasty is very hard to discuss, as a there are not so many objects left. Lots of artifacts were looted or lost in 11th century. A couple of great books were written about Fatimid art recently, but unfortunately I do not have access to them at the moment. I will be happy to tell you more about Fatimid foliage decoration as soon as I get a change to read these books. The art of Seljuk sultanate stands apart from all other Islamic art as it experienced an influence of zoomorphic nomad style. We will consider it later.

In early Islamic time we can already see the attempts to transfer images from one media to another – one can find the similar motifs on metal, wood, carved out of stone or stucco, painted on ceramics, tessellated in mosaics or woven in textiles. Later the migration of a motif and its adoption to a different media will be extremely widespread.

The symbolism of vegetal ornaments in early Islamic art is vague. It could have symbolized earthly paradise, but most likely the parallel between the garden of paradise and floral ornamentation came to Islamic art later, when artists deliberately gave a meaning of paradise to their artworks. Isfahan Shah Mosque decoration is a good example of it – it is easy to see the links between the colours of islimi decoration and paradise description. In early Islamic art the meaning of foliage patterns was most likely the same as in pre-Islamic time, they suggested or evoked life. Without representing life, they provided the sense of growth and movement [3].

 

Bibliography

  1. Classical Art of Islamic World from 9 to 19th Centuries. Ninety-nine Names of God. Exhibition Catalogue. Mardjani Publishing House, Moscow, 2013.
  2. Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, 1987.
  3. Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Bollingen Series, 38, Princeton University Press, 1992.
  4. Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collection piece description http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/448652

 

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, completed 691-692; detail of the interior mosaics showing hanging crowns, jewelry, and inscriptions. © Said Nuseibeh Photo from the Metropolitan museum web-site

Great Mosque of Cordoba by Manuel de Corselas – Creative Commons license

Great Mosque of Cordoba by Manuel de Corselas – Creative Commons license

Great Mosque of Cordoba by Manuel de Corselas – Creative Commons license

Al-Aqsa Mosque 8th century wooden panels at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Desert castle Khirbat al-Mafjar, by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Mosaic pavement with a lion and gazelle, 724–43 or 743–46. Reception hall, Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestinian Territories. Scala /Art Resource, NY. Photo from Metropolitan museum web-site

Khirbat al-Mafjar, tracery window

Khirbat al-Mafjar mosaic floor

Block Carved with a Fan Pattern, ca. 720–724. Limestone, carved. Department of Antiquities, Qasr al-Qastal Archaeological Site, Jordan. Photo from the Metropolitan museum web-site

Hisham’s Palace (Khirbat al Mafjar) remains at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Hisham’s Palace (Khirbat al Mafjar) remains at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Hisham’s Palace (Khirbat al Mafjar) remains at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Dome of Hisham’s Palace (Khirbat al Mafjar), Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem by Deror Avi – Creative Commons license

Fragment Carved with Vine Scroll and a Vase, mid-8th century. Made in Jordan, Qasr al-Mshatta. Limestone, carved. Photo from Metropolitan museum web-site

Decoration at Umayyad Palace at Khirbat ul Minya by Khalid Mahmood – Creative Commons license

Cylindrical Box (Pyxis), 10th century, Spain. Made principally for the personal use of Umayyad nobility. Metropolitan museum of art.

Column bases, probably come from the splendid Umayyad royal residence city of Madinat al-Zahra, near Cordoba, Spain, which was founded in 936. Metropolitan museum of art.

Column bases, probably come from the splendid Umayyad royal residence city of Madinat al-Zahra, near Cordoba, Spain, which was founded in 936. Metropolitan museum of art

Abbasid Mihrab

Panels in beveled style, 20th century copies of 9th century panels from Samarra, Abbasid Iran, Metropolitan museum of art

Fragmentary Cup with Molded Designs in the Beveled Style Abbasid Syria or Iraq, 9th century, Metropolitan museum of art

Column base, early Abbasid Syria probably Raqqa, showing transition between early curled leaf form and Beveled style. Metropolitan museum of art

Bowl decorated in the Beveled Style, 10th century, present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand, Metropolitan museum of art

Bowl, 9th cent Abbasid Iraq, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Dado panel, 10th century. Iran, Nishapur. Stucco; carved, Metropolitan museum of art

Dish, 9th cent Abbasid Iraq, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Carved wood panel, Iraq, Takrit or Baghdad, 9th century, Metropolitan museum of art

Incense burner, 10th century, Samanid or Ghaznavid Iran, Mardjani collection

Dish, Samanid Iran, 10th-11th century, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Bowl, Binkat (modern Uzbekistan), 10th century, Samanid or Ghaznavid dynasty, Mardjani collection

Fragment of an architectural frieze with lotus blossom and half-palmette, Afghanistan , 11th – 12th century (1001 – 1200) Ghaznavid Period (AD 977 – 1186) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewer photo from simerg.com website

Panel with horse heads, Fatimid period (909–1171), 11th century, Egypt, Wood (teak); carved, Metropolitan museum of art

Photo credits

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art web-site. http://www.metmuseum.org
  • Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology University of Oxford. http://www.ashmolean.org/
  • Classical Art of Islamic World from 9 to 19th Centuries. Ninety-nine Names of God. Exhibition Catalogue. Mardjani Publishing House, Moscow, 2013.
  • http://commons.wikimedia.org/
  • http://presentpasts.info/
  • http://simerg.com/
  • http://www.broug.com/

 

  • Art in Mangol period
  • carved motifs on bowl
  • In the middle of 13th century Mongols came to Eastern Iran In 1256 they founded Ilkhanid dynasty that reigned in Iraq till 1340 and in Iran till 1353 In a field of art Mongol invasion brought Chinese influence to Islamic artistic tradition Chinese way of
  • islamic architecture in motives

About the Author
Marina holds a Master of Art degree in Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts from The Prince's School of Traditional Arts (PSTA) in London. She does surface pattern design, ceramics. She teaches Islamic geometry and keeps exploring Islamic arts doing her own research. She is also involved in an outreach programme of PSTA.
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