Background and Inspiration
The phrase “Arabic art” is often interchanged with Islamic art, as it had its start around the beginning of the Islamic religion. The actual time that Arabic art came about is not known exactly, though it is generally thought to have begun around the time of Muhammad (around AD 600). Despite it having a beginning alongside the religion of Islam, not all Arabic art is religious. Much of it is secular and related to the world at the time of its creation. Artists often got their inspiration not only from their current surroundings, but from other civilizations nearby, or even from civilizations in the past. As you will see, the history on Arabic art is extremely diverse.
Types of Art
Arabic art takes on many forms, though it is jewelry, textiles and architecture that are the most well-known. It is generally split up by different eras, among them being early Arabic, early medieval, late medieval, late Arabic, and finally, current Arabic. One thing to remember is that many times a particular style from one era may continue into the next with few changes, while some have a drastic transformation.
Painting, writing, and calligraphy…
This may seem like a strange grouping of art mediums, but they are all closely related. Arabic writing is done from right to left, and was generally written in dark inks, with certain things embellished with special colored inks (red, green, gold). In early Arabic and early Medieval, writing was typically done on parchment made of animal skin. The ink showed up very well on it, and occasionally the parchment was dyed a separate color and brighter ink was used (this was only for special projects). The name given to the form of writing in early times was called Kufic script.
The late medieval period was heavily influenced by China and introduced illuminated manuscripts, which were writings decorated with extremely detailed drawings and paintings – often with expensive ink. They are one of the most well-known types of Arabic art. Cursive writing became more popular during this time, and began showing up on different objects, like pottery and carved panels.
Illuminated manuscripts continued into the late Arabic period and also brought about the creation of albums, where drawings were combined with written work and bound into a book for a special person, like a king or sultan. Portrait painting also became popular at this time, and were created not only for the wealthier people, but peasants and merchants at well. Paper-making was also in full swing by now, due to the popularity of the illuminated manuscripts.
Arabic pottery was considered advanced, even in early times. They often used a technique called luster painting, which made the piece of pottery appear to be made of a precious metal. It was an expensive thing to produce, which meant it was really only made for the wealthy. Eventually there was also ceramic ware that had simple designs painted on them, accompanied by an inscription, usually a quote.
Luster painting continued into the early medieval era, but with more designs of animals and humans being added to the finished piece. Another type of ceramic work called fritware was created, which made pieces that resembled Chinese porcelain.
Through the late medieval and late Arabic periods, pottery continued to emulate Chinese designs, with the technique becoming more advanced. Stronger wares were created and were able to withstand much more use, and different colors began to make their way in. For one of the first times, purple, black, and different shades of green began to appear
Glass, metal, and other mediums…
Early glass work in early Arabic is similar to Roman glass work, and was generally used on bottles and containers. Metal work used a lot of bronze and brass to produce flatware, eating utensils, jugs and containers. Precious metals were also used, but as with pottery, they were more expensive. Wood was rare and expensive, and was often used on carvings for decoration.
When the early medieval period came around, glass work began to borrow from Egyptian art. They picked up a technique called marvered and combed glass, which left an interesting feather pattern on the glass. Metal work was similar to earlier times, except it began to add decorations in precious metals on top of bronze and brass, and the technique began to be used on many other objects, like candlesticks and pens.
The late medieval era brought about tile work, with designs inspired by China. They were sometimes cut into shapes, like stars and crosses, and were colored with bright blues and golds. In the late Arabic period, wood-working grew in popularity, using things like ivory and mother of pearl to decorate various pieces of furniture as well as architectural designs.
Arabic jewelry became especially important in the early medieval era, as a need began to arise that required fancier and more elaborate art. They were almost always constructed from gold and set with precious stones (emeralds and rubies), as well as rock crystal, which was a favorite stone of the time. Unsurprisingly, the type and amount of jewelry a woman had was a hint as to how rich she was.
Textiles were popular as they had multiple uses, from clothes and furnishings to tents. In early times, they were often created with expensive materials, like silk, and embroidered with intricate designs using even more expensive gold and silver threads. Bright colors were a must have. Clothing became more important going into the medieval era, because as with jewelry, they became a symbol of a person’s wealth. Embroidery became more elaborate as did the materials.
Late medieval textiles still used the same fabrics, but their colors and designs changed with the times. As with other areas of art during this era, the designs were taken from Chinese culture. Late Arabic styles continued as they had previously, but embroidery became more elaborate.
One of the most famous examples of Arabic textiles is of course, the carpet (Aladdin, anyone?) They were created by weaving the threads, and were generally done in primary colors (blue, red, and yellow). The designs were generally taken from the illuminated manuscripts that had become so popular.
Arabic architecture is probably the most well-known of any part of Arabic art, simply because you can go to just about any city and see it! The mosque, the building created so that followers of Islam had somewhere to pray, is the most iconic piece of Arabic architecture. They have been around almost since the Islamic religion began, and still continue to this day.
While exact designs depend on the specific type of Islam practiced and the area it is located in, many have similar designs. On the outside, they may have arched entryways with a large central dome, while on the inside is full of columns and more arch designs. The internal decoration is usually elaborate, following the same patterns and designs described earlier from pottery and manuscripts. The prayer hall, that every mosque contains, may very well have religious verses on the walls to add to the atmosphere.
A Lasting Effect
Though the times may have changed, and technology may have made the creation of some art easier, the Arabic art of today has not forgotten its past. The influence is still there, whether it is carpet making (still popular!), traditional calligraphy, or even digital art. It isn’t uncommon to see artists combine the past and the present in their work, and that is what allows art to continue evolving.
- Jastrow. “Cup with Leaves”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cup_leaves_bunch_Louvre_OA7479.jpg
- Fabienkhan. “Silver Armlet”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thr_muze_art_islam_15.jpg
- Talmoryair. “Iznik tiles”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iznik_tiles_in_the_Topkap%C4%B1_Palace.jpg
- Dsmdgold. “Arabischer Maler um 1335”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arabischer_Maler_um_1335_004.jpg
- Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art Across Time, Volume 1. McGraw-Hill, 2007.
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art, http://www.lacma.org/islamic_art/intro.htm
- Goutamkhandelwal. “Schwetzingen Mosque”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schwetzingen_Mosque.JPG
- Noumenon. “Circular Silk”. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IlkhanateSilkCircular.jpg