The terms ‘arts of Islam’(or ‘Islamic art’) is applied to the artistic production that took place between the Hijra (622 AD) and the nineteenth century in a vast space extending from Spain to India inhabited by people of Islamic culture. The art produced in the Islamic world has a certain stylistic unity that is the result of the movement of artists, merchants, patrons and the works themselves. The use of the same script throughout Islamic civilization and the special value given to calligraphy strengthened this unity. There were other common features too, such as the attention to decoration and the importance of geometry and all-over patterns. Because of the great diversity of forms and decoration in different countries and at different periods, however, the term ‘arts of Islam’ is usually preferred to ‘Islamic art’. “[…] Retracing the journey of certain works and examining their impact on a culture that had not produced them, or on a particular author, requires an examination of the areas of contact and the transmission procedures.”
From the ninth century, Muslim-Arab culture found artistic expression, especially in architecture. Each of the successive dominant powers in North Africa and Spain left its mark, so religious and civic architecture faithfully reflect the characteristics of the regime: Umayyad majesty and magnificence, the exuberance of the Taifa emirs, Almoravid simplicity, Almohad harmony. Some types of decoration were much admired by Christians, who used them in churches, giving rise to a synthesis known as Mozarab art. In the lands that returned to Christianity after the Reconquista in Spain and Sicily, Arab know-how, combined with the fascination exercised by the powerful through art, gave rise to new forms of expression known as Mudéjar.
The legacy of mediaeval Muslim art is particularly great in North Africa and Spain, as is reflected in the great mosques of Kairouan and Cordoba.
The rebuilding of the great mosque of Kairouan in 836 was part of a programme that produced the ribats – the great fortified military establishments – of Monastir and Sousse, the great mosques of Sfax, Sousse and Tunis, and the palatine city of Raqqada. It is nonetheless the most prestigious building of Ifriqiya (North Africa). Fifty years later than Cordoba, it adopted the “Mediterranean plan”, with 17 naves perpendicular to the qibla wall (indicating the direction of Mecca, which the faithful must face when they pray).
The great mosque of Cordoba was built between the late eighth and the late tenth centuries. After sharing the Church of St. Vincent with the Christians, the Umayyads decided to construct their own building on the site of the church, reusing some of its elements, such as the columns and capitals, producing what is considered the finest Umayyad building. It was converted into a cathedral in the thirteenth century, when it was transformed in part but maintains an aspect described as “encrusted in the mosque”.
The building that gives the best understanding of the Arab legacy to western art is the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, whose sculpted ceiling is almost certainly the work of Muslim artists. Arabic inscriptions in Kufic script have been preserved. The influence of Muslim art is evident in the most prestigious religious buildings in Sicily and those best able to illustrate the brilliance of Roman Christianity. Muslim decorative forms are found in the intersecting arches and frescos decorating the apses of Palermo and Monreale Cathedrals. The influences can be traced into the very heart of the Latin world, in distant sanctuaries such as Puy-en-Velay Cathedral and Saint-Philibert-de-Grand-Lieu (Loire-Atlantique).
The lifestyle of the Islamic courts included the culinary arts. The order of dishes and the distinction between savoury and sweet foods, of which our modern cuisine is the distant heir, were born in the East, in the countries (Iraq, Egypt, Sicily) where the best land was planted with sugar cane. In eleventh century Cairo during the great festivals, trees and animals were fashioned in sugar for the caliph’s palace. This lifestyle, which exalted the wealth of the Islamic courts and the power of their rulers, made a great impression on the Crusaders when they discovered the East in the twelfth century. Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Latins in 1187, is also famous for the sorbets he offered his adversaries in the summer heat, prepared with snow brought specially from the mountains of Lebanon, a gesture that fed his legend, one eagerly seized upon in the West by courtly literature. Even in the fourteenth century, Saladin was one of the heroes of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Latin nobility that settled in the Holy Land in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries employed the same craftsmen as their enemies, taking over Islamic iconography or Christianizing the decoration of fine objects.
The introduction of paper and the dissemination of the book contributed to the development of illustration and illumination. Books on medicine, zoology and astrology were the first to be illustrated, while the custom of illuminating the Koran became general.
The arabesque: The “Arab style” ornament is an uninterrupted wave, idealized vegetation, endless movement, ceaseless variation … For the men of the desert to whom the Koran offered paradise as “a sublime garden where ripe fruits are within reach” and whom conquest led to the gardens of Grenada and Isfahan, the vegetal arabesque was a promise of infinity.
Geometric ornament: This nears pure abstraction. Some speak of it as a mathematicians’ and astrologers’ art, perhaps because it is derived from the arrangement and superimposition of starred polygons with six, eight, ten or twelve points. These figures with multiple foci are nonetheless an invitation to contemplation.
Literature and poetry
Another influence was the Muslim-Arab poetry of al-Andalus on western poetry. It has been established that the authors of several epics were familiar with Andalusian culture because Muslim heroes are mentioned in them. Similarities have also been identified between Sufi poetry and some western courtly verse. It is probably more appropriate here to speak in terms of borrowings that led to recreations, rather than direct influence or exchange.
The time was ripe for literature to blossom. The grammarians had already set the rules of a language as pure and close to its origins as possible, and the first dictionaries had appeared. The paper industry was developing. Princes were tolerant and aristocrats were eager to be patrons. Literary genres flourished: the epistle, the treatise (risâla), collections of tales (maqâmat – that alternate rhymed prose and poetry and in which the action refers to a central character).
The poetry explored new themes. Al-Mutanabbi (died 965), the proud courtier, celebrated great victories and glorified his patrons, sometimes turning against them. Al-Ma’ari (died 1058) expressed at once the hope, revolt and bitterness of the world. He went blind at the age of four and proclaimed his despair and cultivated scepticism about religion. Abu Nuwâs (died 815) used his great talent and his closeness to the caliphs to give himself over to scandal and provocation. He subverted traditional poetry, writing openly of wine and illicit love of women and men without distinction. Literature was a shared pleasure, it was enjoyed in public, in the evening and at night. The ordinary people talked endlessly too. In public squares, storytellers recited poetry and told tales of heroic deeds. The teller was the master of the tale and his audience: to keep their interest, he introduced variants, told stories within stories, and interrupted the narrative at its most exciting points.
The thousand and one nights are typical of popular literature and chapbooks. With the story of Antar, the legends of the sea, the lament of Majnûn (mad with love), they were an itinerant memory. Arab-Andalusian Spain blossomed to create an original form of poetry: Ibn Hazm (died 1063), who was also a jurist and theologian, invented the codes of courtly love (Tawq al-hamâma: available in English from Martino Fine Books as The ring and the dove). The troubadours took over this form of poetry and mixing of languages.
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