The Beginnings of Islamic Art

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  • Topic: Al-Andalus, Cairo, Islamic art
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The beginnings of Islamic art

[edit] Before the dynasties

It is quite difficult to distinguish the earliest Islamic objects from their predecessors in Sasanian and Byzantine art; in fact, they utilize the same techniques and the same motifs. There was, notably, a significant production of unglazed ceramics, witnessed by a famous small bowl preserved in the Louvre, whose inscription assures its attribution to the Islamic period. Vegetal motifs were the most important in these early productions.

Umayyad art

Religious and civic architecture were developed under the Umayyads, and new concepts and new plans were put into practice. Thus, the "Arab plan," with court and hypostyle prayer hall, truly became a functional type with the construction of the Great Mosque of Damascus on the most sacred site in the city (on top of the ancient temple of Jupiter and in place of the basilica of St. John the Baptist). This building served as a point of reference for builders (and for art historians) for the birth of the Arab plan. Mosaics from the riwaq (portico) of the Great Mosque of Damascus. Mosaics from the riwaq (portico) of the Great Mosque of Damascus.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is indisputably one of the most important buildings in all of Islamic architecture, marked by a strong Byzantine influence (mosaic against a gold background, and a central plan that recalls that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), but already bearing purely Islamic elements, such as the great epigraphic frieze. The desert palaces in Jordan and Syria (for example, Mshatta, Qasr Amra, and Khirbat al-Mafjar) served the caliphs as living quarters, reception halls, and baths, and were decorated to promote an image of royal luxury.

Outside of architecture, work in ceramic was still somewhat primitive (unglazed); some metal objects have also survived, but it remains rather difficult to distinguish these objects from those of the pre-Islamic period.

In architecture, as in the portable arts, Umayyad artists and artisans did not invent a new vocabulary, but rather willingly reused those received from Mediterranean and Iranian late antiquity, which they adapted to their own artistic conceptions. For example, the mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus are based on Byzantine models, but replace the figurative elements with images of trees and cities. The desert palaces also bear witness to these influences. By combining the various traditions that they had inherited, and by readapting motifs and architectural elements, artists created little by little a typically Muslim art, particularly discernible in the aesthetic of the arabesque, which appears both on monuments and in illuminated Korans.

[edit] Abbasid art
Luster-ware bowl from Susa, 9th century, today in the Louvre. Luster-ware bowl from Susa, 9th century, today in the Louvre.

If one knows more about Umayyad architecture than about objects produced during the same period, the objects produced under the Abbasid dynasty have been more thoroughly studied than the architectural productions of that period. With the displacement of the center of power toward the east, two cities, which served successively as capitals, enter upon the scene: Baghdad and Samarra, both in Iraq. The ancient city of Baghdad cannot be excavated, as it lies beneath the modern city. However, Samarra has been well studied, and is known for its extensive cultivation of the art of stucco. Motifs known from the stucco at Samarra permit the dating of structures built elsewhere, and are furthermore found on portable objects, particular in wood, from Egypt through to Iran.

The Abbasid period also coincided with two major innovations in the ceramic arts: the invention of faience, and of metallic luster, which continued to be practiced long after the disappearance of the dynasty.

[edit] The medieval period (9th-15th centuries)

Beginning in the 9th century, Abbasid sovereignty was contested in the provinces...
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