Lesson 5:   Islamic art

Lesson 1
Ritual Geometry


Lesson 2
Group Elements

Color Theory

Lesson 3
Groups and Groups Acting on Sets

Block printing

Lesson 4
Klimt and the Computer

Color and symmetry in modern art I

Lesson 5

Islamic art

Lesson 6
Penrose and Rice

Color and symmetry in modern art II

Lesson 7
Escher 1

Escher 2

Lesson 8
Hundertwasser & Griffeath

Pattern and Modern Painting

Brian P. Hoke: Cellular Automata and Art

Student's Work

  • 1) To become acquainted with historical influences on Islamic art
  • 2) To observe the abstract, geometrical nature of Islamic art
  • 3) To analyze the circular structure of Islamic tiling
  • 4) To design color tilings

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
World of Islam Festival Trust, 1976

Plate 60. p.86

Basic principals of Islamic faith:
From this slide, what can we conjecture about Islamic culture? Core themes in Islamic culture are: monotheism (no other deity except the one God); Mohammad as the last messenger of God in the teachings of the Qu'ran; salat (prayer); al-twahid (unity in multiplicity); mosques; aniconism (no representation of human or animal forms); geometric art which constructs, squares, hexagons, octogons, etc. from the circle.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 41. p.70

The roots of Islamic-Arabic art:
Graeco-Roman monuments and decorative forms laid a foundation for the monumental arts of Islam.

H. W. Janson: "History of Art"
319 Vitale, Ravenna, 526-47 A.D. p.225

Islamic artists also drew upon the symbols and patterns from their early Arabic and nomadic cultures.

Arabic leatherwork motif.

From Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 10. p.17

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 5. p.16, Detail from Mshatta (Early Islamic mansion)

Islamic belief in Aniconism and the doctrine of unity (al-twahid) demanded a rich vocabulary of abstract, geometric forms that translated into the architecture of mosques.

Artists reiterated these forms in complex decoration that covered the surface of every work of art from large buildings, to rugs, paintings and small sacred objects.

From: "Al-Andalus   The Art of Islamic Spain"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1992

53. Writing Desk, p.268

Arabic calligraphy also provided a basis for decorative forms. Sacred Qu'ranic writing evloved into abstract pattern, enhancing Islamic ornamentation with both visual and spirtual symbolism.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 149. p.158

History, geography and the expansion of Islam

Blair and Bloom: "The Art and Architecture of Islam   1250-1800"
Yale University Press, 1994

Map of The Islamic World 1250-1500 AD

Saudi Arabia, a nation populated largely by nomads, gave birth to Islam during the seventh century AD. The Prophet Mohammad was born in Mecca. He claimed to have received the word of God and attracted a small following. In 622 Mohammad and a group of merchants fled from severe persecution to Medina and founded the first Islamic state. Ten years later, Mohammad returned to Mecca and triumphantly overturned the pagan idols surrounding the sacred shrine of the Ka'ba. Then he forgave his enemies, and securely established his birthplace in Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam. In a very short time (only a hundred years) Arab Muslim armies conquered so much territory that that their land stretched from the Western borders of India, across Persia and Northern Africa, to Spain and Southern France. Mosques were erected for prayer in order to "strengthen political and social ties and bind the faithful." Islam remained in the West for 800 years until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors from Granada." [note 1]

How did the Muslim Empire establish itself so rapidly?

The rapid success and durability of the Islamic Empire rests in part on the swift development of a monumental Islamic art. The Muslims took over large urbanized societies and a rich legacy of intact artistic traditions. The first conquests, Byzantium and Persia, vyed for territory in Saudi Arabia, but instead, were defeated by the Arabs and formed the core of their Empire. Alexander the Great conquered these regions 800 years earlier. Subjugation to Greece unified them under the artistic traditions of Classical Greece. The Roman Empire created yet another cultural layer. This collective inheritance did much to unify the early Islamic kingdom. [note 2]

The development of Islamic art: Graeco-Roman

The Arab armies needed to enact authority over their more sophisticated subjects, but brought few dynamic traditions of their own. After the first few years of power, they perceived the need to establish a monumental artistic style that could expand their faith and compete with other great religions and institutions. Their success in this enterprise was aided by two factors: Art & Architect. [note 2]

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar: "The Art and Architecture of Islam   650-1250"
Yale University Press, 1994

13. Damascus Great Mosque, 706.

  • 1) they didn't impose their religion, but allowed conversion to take place gradually, trusting in the persuasive power of their message (such enlightened attitudes enabled Islam to translate and preserve much of Classical culture for the Western world); [note 3]

  • 2) they adopted the artistic traditions of their subjects, interpreting them in fresh and vigorous ways. For example, the first great mosques were modeled on the Byzantine basilica and central plan, and crafted by Byzantine builders and artisans. [note 4] Classical decoration, provided the inspiration from "abstract and linear or decorative modes that co-existed with representations of man and nature." [note 5]

Islamic art was "born almost over night, about a century after the Prophet's death, [and] ...displayed a completely convincing unity of form that would maintain itself over the centuries Islamic Art." [note 6]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 141 and 142. p.150

The development of Islamic art: Arabic influences

While Arab-Nomadic culture lacked a grand imperial art, their aesthetic tastes contributed essential elements to Islamic art. Nomads treasured the minor arts of textiles and weapons, and lavished them with geometrical decoration. Life under the stars, in the infinitude of the desert, endowed them with a love of surfaces filled with radient, boundless patterns, and lush visions of paradise and vines. Along with architecture, decoration is a core element in Islamic art. [note 7]

Blair and Bloom: "The Art and Architecture of Islam   1250-1800"
Yale University Press, 1994

p. 233

Influence of Islam

Along with the merging of Graeco Roman and Arabic elements, the faith of Islam itself contributed essential principles to the new art: Arabic language (which we'll deal with later in this lecture) and Aniconism emanate both the content and form of Islamic expression. Aniconism defines figurative art as a challenge to the omnipotence of God. "The artist who fashions a representation of a living thing is a competitor of God and therefore destined to eternal damnation." [note 8], In Islamic art the ban against illusion served two functions:

  • 1) it produced universal forms that omitted specific imagery and thus, included in its audience all of Islam's diverse subjects. [note 9]

  • 2) it unleashed the passionate Arabic genius for abstraction in symmetrical, meditative geometry. This geometry organized the foundations of their architecture and ornament. Abstract pattern also expressed a basic tenet of Islam: "Instead of ensnaring the mind and leading it into some imaginary world it dissolve[d] mental fixations and detache[d] consciousness from its inward idols." [note 10] As we shall see in exploring the architecture and patterns of Islam further, this infinite symmetry expressed yet another of Islam's ideals: al-twahid, the doctrine of unity, or multiplicity in unity. [note 11]

From: "Al-Andalus   The Art of Islamic Spain"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1992


Geometry and worship in early Islamic Architecture: The Ka'ba

We can recognize this geometric expression and its spiritual genesis in the Ka'ba. This is a small 10'x12'x15' building, with a flat roof resting on 6 wooden pillars. It was constructed in Mecca centuries before the birth of Islam, and has been ravaged and rebuilt more than once. Part of the Ka'ba's significance stems from its history. It is believed that the Prophet, Abraham, father of Ishmael, and apostle of "pure and universal monotheism" was its first architect. Muslims, consequently, perceive it as the first and holiest sanctuary to the one God in Arabia. [note 12] The Ka'ba also marks the site of the Prophet's triumpant return from Medina. In addition to its religious record, the cube of the Ka'ba concretely represents God's centrality in Moslem life. [note 13] The cube connotes the "idea of the center" in the geometry of space, and the crystalline shape of earthly existence. Muslims face the direction of the Ka'ba when performing salat (prayer), symbolizing their vast, unified community of worship. [note 14]

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar: "The Art and Architecture of Islam   650-1250",1987
1. Mecca, Ka`ba

Geometry and worship in early Islamic Architecture: Dome of the Rock

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 3. p.10

The Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem, built 60 years after the Prophet's death in 632, "shelters" the ancient rock from Mohammad divine ascendance into heaven. [note 15] It uses the style of the Byzantine sanctuary with a central dome and octagonal base, but keeps the geometry of the architecture more strictly symmetrical than other monumental buildings of the same time. [note 16]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Figure 1, 2, 3. p.11 (Floor plans of three early Christian Churches).

Still, the dome is a meeting place between Byzantine and nascent Islamic art. The interior of the dome is decorated with mosaics that display vine arabesques embellished with jewels and diadems of Byzantine style, yet there is no representation of animate beings. AA[note 16]

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar: "The Art and Architecture of Islam   650-1250",1987
p. 30

The drum of the dome housing the rock is held up by four pillars and 12 columns, allowing for circumnambulation. The bases of these pillars form the intersecting points of a star-shaped polygon and create two squares traced in the center circle. These rectangular areas display proportions between the sides of a square and its diagonal, a relationship that corresponds to the irrational number of the square root of two. This system of proportion creates an "organic", harmony in the building. It expresses the mathematical fusion of a circle and square, because the "celestial" sphere or circle joins with the "earthly crystal of the lower octagon, [note 17]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Figure 6, p.13

This kind of geometric theme in architecture gracefully translates into smaller scale ornamentation on later Islamic buildings of the 10th -14th centuries, and echoes the theme of unity in multiplicity. Arabic embellishment is "qualitiative - not purely quantitative... [and its geometry] has a contemplative aspect. It is the art of combining the multiple and the diverse with unity." [note 17]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 11, p.29

Islamic Decorative art: influences from Arabic language and writing

Another important influence on Islamic art is the writing of Arabic language. The Qu'ran is viewed as the true and final revelation of God through the Prophet. Thus, daily Muslim life vibrates with it's sacred formulae, and the arrival of literacy designates a huge shift in Arabic culture. [note 18] As a key element in Islamic art, writing in particular, influenced decoration and pattern. The sacred word of the Qu'ran evolved into both the content and form of Islamic patterns, issuing arabesques and complex, repeating crystalline forms. "Writing not only became an integral part of the decoration of a building,... but also indicated its purpose. Calligraphy spread to works other than the Qu'ran and was considered the greatest art." [note 19]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 27, p.54

Arabic calligraphy occurs in two styles: Kufic and Cursive scripts

  • Kufic script: plain brick-like rectangles with calligraphic patterns of Arabic script. [note 20]
    These are often seen on architectural surfaces.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 26, p.53

  • Cursive script: a fluid undulating script related to decorative vegetation and geometric interlacing.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 25, p.53

Cursive script can flow back and forth between the three types of Islamic patterns:
arabesque, geometric interlacing, and complex polygons.

  • Arabesques are linear, and usually employ vine and plant motifs. An ancient, multicultural form, it lends itself easily to an undulating abstract line, as well as signifying nature, the tree of life, or paradise.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 32, p.60

During the same period, Christian monks of Lindesfarne in the British Isles, briefly developed a similar decorative art of curving, interwoven lines. However, they employed animal rather than plant motifs. This style disappeared from the North with the arrival of Latin Christian cultures and more illusionistic modes. [note 21]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Figure 32, p.59

  • Geometric interlacing and complex polygons: Interlaced designs weave like a trellis and form geometric, repeating shapes.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Figure 35, p.60

Interlacing and arabesque can be seen as part of a continuum. The curvilinear arabesque and crystalline interlacement appear closely related or further apart, depending on the artist's intention. While the Arabesque is dirivative of the decorative borders in Classical architecture, interlacement may have stemmed from Roman pavement designs.

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 36, p.61

Respectively, "the two represent the poles of all artistic expression in Islam: the sense of rhythm and the spirit of geometry." [note 22]

  • Polygons:
    The employment of complex regular polygons is the largest class of pattern related to the geometry of interlacement. [note 23] It builds from a regular figure inscribed in a circle. This cell is then translated and the innate proportions and internal symmetries of the original figure repeat infinitely across the plane. The circle continues to guide the design, but is "felt rather than seen." Islamic designs are perhaps the most mathematically sophisticated patterns we know of, and reflect the spiritual life of Islam. "Interlacement represents the most.. direct expression of the idea of Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world." [note 24]

Titus Burckhardt: "Art of Islam   Language and Meaning"
Plate 45, p.67

Figure 37, Plate 35, p.62

Plate 37 and 38, p.64

Note the construction of the last design based on the division of the circle.

Conclusion: The striking achievement of Islamic art mirrors the consolidation of their diverse conquests. Islamic artists envisioned al-twahid, unity in multiplicity -- the Divine Unity of Islam.

Connections between art and mathematics

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© Copyright 1996, Pippa Drew and Dorothy Wallace, Dartmouth College