Thursday, 27 September 2007

Arts and Crafts of Islam

Islamic Arts and Crafts
A World of Inspiration

By Way of Explanation

Artists and craftsmen, from modest hobbyists to textile artists and fine artists, seek and find inspiration all around them. They look to the past as well as to the present; to the natural world and to traditional design sources as well as to their own experiences and perceptions. The talk I give to fellow-quilters and needleworkers grew from my love affair with the inexhaustible treasury of patterns and designs found on the architecture and artefacts of the Islamic world. They range from the miraculous complexity of the patterns seen, for example, in the decoration of the Alhambra in Granada, to the richness and variety of the carpets of the Middle East. They encompass delicately patterned ceramics, glasswork, intricately woven textiles, leather work, as well as the calligraphy and arabesque decorative style which were developed to art forms of themselves. What follows offers no more than the briefest outline of the background to the phenomenon which is Islamic art.

'The Very Summit of Perfection

'Islamic art derives from the marriage of wisdom and craftsmanship'- Owen Jones

'The Alhambra is at the very summit of perfection of Moorish art; every principle which we can derive from the study of the ornamental art of any other people is not only ever present here, but was by the Moors more universally and truly obeyed. We find in the Alhambra the speaking art of the Egyptians, the natural grace and refinement of the Greeks, the geometrical combinations of the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs. The Moorish ornament wanted but one charm, which was the peculiar feature of the Egyptian ornament: symbolism.' So says
Owen Jones in his classic book The Grammar of Ornament.

In his Forward to Titus Burkhardt's book Art of Islam. Language and Meaning. Sayyed Hossein Nadr, says this: 'Islamic art was at last revealed to be what it really is, namely the earthly crystallisation of the spirit of the Islamic revelation as well as a reflection on the heavenly realities of earth…….. with the help of which of the Moslem makes his journey through the terrestrial environment and beyond……………..'

It helps to understand a little about the history of the spread of Islam, which began early in the seventh century. One of the great achievements of the Prophet Mahommed, the founder of Islam, was to convert and unite diverse Arab tribes and inspire them, in their turn, to convert surrounding peoples. The early converts were essentially nomadic, desert-dwelling peoples, yet so successful were they that by 641 Egypt had been converted, after which the 'Moors' as they came to be known swept, across North Africa and Spain. The geographical limit of their conquests was Tours in France, which they reached in 732. The Moorish architecture which survives in these places, of which the Alhambra in Grenada is the outstanding example, are monuments to the great days of the mighty Islamic empire. It is very largely these buildings and the elaborate, stylised decoration seen on them, which have inspired and influenced Western artists ever since.

A Sense of Unity

Quoting, again, from Sayyed Hossein Nadr's Forward to Titus Burkhardt's book, he says that [Islamic art] 'contains a unique unity of form which maintains itself over centuries'. Thus, the many patterns and designs which to Western eyes are characteristically Islamic occur in a bewildering number of places and forms and yet are still identifiably Islamic in style. How has it come about that we see and recognise this style all over such a vast geographical area, and in places like France and Spain which today are predominantly Christian countries? This is because Islamic art is unique in being at once complex and various, and at the same time having an underlying unity which makes it instantly recognisable in style and content.

This sense of unity stems from the fact that very early in the history of Islamic art a distinct architectural style and a complete set of motifs became associated with the ideas and faith which generated them. By contrast, diversity rather than uniformity was characteristic of the art of Christendom, each of its various stages being distinct, so that Carolingian, Byzantine and Renaissance styles are all quite different. Islamic art on the other hand, is characterised by uniformity both in time and space. Islamic artists did not seek innovation in the way that, say, the Renaissance artists did. They remained faithful to time honoured models and conventions, exploring ways of further enriching and reinventing the art through subtle variations and adaptations.

This is not, of course, to suggest that there are no discernible variations and trends in Islamic art forms. Contact with the vast range of established cultures which were assimilated as the Islamic empire expanded had a profound effect on the buildings and artefacts created after the conquest. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the Islamic world was spread over vast geographical areas and that its converts were drawn from the great diversity of the races of man, from very early on a remarkable uniformity is evident; the differences are of nuance and emphasis rather than being fundamental; they are variations on unchanging themes.

The most compelling reason for this is that Islamic art is essentially and always, sacred art, an expression of a deeply spiritual sensibility. Indeed, it is often argued that the universal appeal of this art derives precisely from its religious roots. There are elaborate theories about the spiritual significance of just about every manifestation of Islamic art, including studies of the cosmological significance of the geometrical properties of buildings and decorative patterns. If, while marvelling both at the technical skill and the aesthetic beauty of this art, we remember this, we may perhaps come a little closer to an understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic art and its creators.

There are three distinct strands to Islamic decorative art and design: the formal geometrical patterns, exemplifying the mathematical genius of the Arabs, and graceful, flowing stylisation of objects from the natural world - what has come to be called 'arabesque' style. However, more important than either of these is the calligraphy which, while it can be viewed as an expression of the arabesque style, was elevated to an art form in itself. As well as reflecting the aesthetic genius of the Arabs, their unique script was also an important influence in the establishment of the early Islamic empire. David Rice, in his book, Islamic Art, maintains that the adoption of the Arabic script was the main factor which made the art of the Islamic world into a distinctive style.

The Spirit of Geometry
'The circle, and its centre, are the point at which all Islamic geometric patterns begin. The circle symbolically represents one God, eternity, without beginning and without end. The circle is the most beautiful parent of all polygons, both containing and underlying them. '
Interlacement is a familiar element in the decorative art of many cultures - the Celts, Romans and Greeks all used it extensively. But the awesome mathematical complexity characteristic of Islamic art excels all and has fascinated and beguiled artists and craftsmen of all creeds and all cultures down the ages. Many theories have been advanced to explain these inspiring manifestations of Islamic decorative art, including the idea that Moorish artists and decorators were led to develop elaborate geometrical designs because, dating from about 690, representational paintings and decorations were banned in mosques. However, the history and practise of representational art is not so simple. Strictly speaking, the ban applied only to the image of the divinity because such images could become objects of idolatry. Also, God was inimitable and human figures could be seen as an attempt to represent God. The ban was, and is, interpreted differently by different ethnic groups, some branches of Islam applying the ban more rigidly than others: the Sunni Arabs, for example, frowned on representation of ANY living being.

Whatever the impetus for the development of this unique, mathematically-based decoration, it has been described as ‘the most intellectually satisfying form of surface decoration for it is an extremely direct expression of the Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world.’ Interlacement, generally constituted from a single, unbroken line which turns endlessy back on itself, reflects the unity underlying all things. So although the Arab conquerors would no doubt have seen and perhaps assimilated previous examples of this decorative device, for example in pavement mosaics in temples and churches, they applied to it their own particular mathematical genius to produce altogether more sophisticated and complex creations. As for the liturgical purpose of this geometrical art, it has been suggested that it reflects no IDEAS but enhances a quality of contemplative emptiness which frees the mind from mental ‘fixations’. It has, in other words, a sort of spiritual economy and could, perhaps, be related to yoga practises, where the idea is to still the mind and body.

Post Script

In applying some of the patterns to needlework, I’ve focused on designs and patterns from those elements of Islamic design which readily lend themselves to translation into pieced patterns, such as stars and other polygons appearing on decorative tiles, screens, stonework and carpets. Examples of the arabesque style have of course often been interpreted in appliqué work, embroidery and quilting.


Titus Burkhardt: The Art of Islam. Language and Meaning
A.F.Calvert. The Alhambra. 1904
Keith Critchlow:Islamic Patterns 1976
David Rice. Islamic Art 1965


billoo said...

C, to take up Nasr's point: don't you think that the genius of the west has been precisely this inability or reluctance to stick to one model?

I know that he (liek others from the 'traditionalist' school think that the renaissance was a sort of second 'Fall', but still. That is to miss much and to think in narrow terms (in my opinion).
Things *after* the fall are more interesting anyway-at least to our modern sensibilities, no?

Celia said...

Yes, I Do think that, but also believe that it's impossible to compare cultures in this way. Belief systems, and the aesthetics they inspire and underpin, are valid in themselves. They are 'doing' different things. What I think is most interesting of all is the ways in which these systems have, historically,influenced and interpenetrated each other - they have more in common than is sometimes allowed. Generalising about 'Islam' and 'western civilisation'involves simplification which tends to obscure that fact.

billoo said...

Yes, agree with you , C. Much more of patchwork than some would like to believe. All this interweaving..from a single strange that it should take on different colours..

Nasr is a terrible bore, though.

Best wishes,