Early Islamic Art
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Early Islamic Period: Art

 

While the Islamic period has a fixed starting date, signaled by the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, the birth of Islamic art is far more difficult to single out. Instead, we can consider its genesis during the first century of Islamic rule. Although relatively little is known about material culture in Arabia at the time of the

Plaque with king on horseback
fig. 6 Textile fragment
Bowl
fig. 7 Bowl

Islamic conquests, the Byzantine and Sasanian lands newly absorbed within the Muslim commonwealth had their own indigenous artistic traditions. It seems likely that the art of the preceding period persisted for a time, as artists who had lately worked under Byzantine or Sasanian patronage initially continued to follow preexisting conventions, but under Muslim patronage. It is therefore difficult at times to distinguish between early Islamic and pre-Islamic art.

Characteristic of this transitional period is a stucco relief plaque, depicting a king hunting on horseback, from a small palace in northern Iran, datable to the end of the seventh or the first half of the eighth century (fig. 1). The technique (the relief decoration was produced in a mold), style (for example, the rigidity of the figures despite their implied movement), and form of this object, as well as its subject matter, belong to the tradition of Sasanian art. The king wears a large, carefully detailed crown, typical of Sasanian royal imagery. In this instance, however, the crown, in the form of a crescent and globe set between a symmetrical pair of wings, is not intended to distinguish a particular king. The entire image was probably meant as a generic symbol of kingship or royalty, rather than as a depiction of a specific Sasanian ruler. Thus, a theme derived from pre-Islamic courtly tradition in Iran was simply continued, although the image had begun to lose some of its former meaning. The Sasanian crown, once an insignia of royal power, was abstracted and removed from its original context, becoming an important motif in early Islamic art, as can also be seen on an eighth- to ninth-century textile fragment (fig. 6) and a ninth-century ceramic bowl (fig. 7).

The assimilation and imaginative adaptation of pre-Islamic decorative themes and motifs – as well as techniques, styles, and forms – characterize much of the art of early Islamic times. Glass from this period, of which the museum has an excellent collection, demonstrates the use of late Roman techniques and forms adapted and transformed to suit a new taste or to meet new needs. An example of a rare type of bottle (now missing its neck) in the museum’s collection is decorated with applied, mold-pressed masks in the form of smiling faces (fig. 2). These masks or grotesques were probably derived from somewhat larger-scale molded decoration on late Roman glass flasks (so-called head flasks). Here, however, the faces, with wide eyes and gashlike mouths, have been reduced to stylized decorative elements, far removed from their classical prototypes.

Base of a bottle
fig. 2 Base of a Bottle
Cosmetic container
fig. 3 Cosmetic Container
Two leaves from a manuscript of the Qur’an
fig. 4 Two Leaves from a Manuscript of the Qur’an
Page from a manuscript of the Qur’an
fig. 5 Page from a Manuscript of the Qur’an

Another glass object in the collection, a cosmetic container in the form of a bottle mounted on the back of a horse or a donkey, cleverly recasts a type of late Roman glass vessel while retaining the same technique and function (fig. 3). In the Islamic version – which was known over a wide area, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – the Roman balsamarium, a tube-shaped unguent flask, is typically transformed through the addition of one or more lively pack animals, who now transport the flask. Like their late Roman prototypes, vessels of this type are often elaborately decorated with trailed or applied glass thread.

Other examples of glass, metalwork, carved wood, and textiles in the collection reflect a mixed artistic heritage. Even Umayyad religious monuments – such as the well-known Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, whose function and meaning are clearly Islamic – demonstrate this formative process, which combined and transformed classical, Byzantine, and Sasanian elements. Gradually, as the Muslim faith and the nascent Islamic state became more established, a uniquely Islamic art began to emerge.

The revelation of the Qur’an and its subsequent codification in written form had an incalculable impact on the development of Arabic writing and on book production in the first century of the Muslim era. By early Abbasid times the Qur’an had achieved a standard arrangement, which prevailed for several centuries. Following the tradition of classical antiquity and Byzantium, the codex, or book, was adapted as the format for the Qur’an, which is made up of 114 chapters.

Although several styles of writing were practiced in the seventh and eighth centuries, by the ninth century so-called Kufic had supplanted these in the production of Qur'ans. Named after the city al-Kufa, in southern Iraq, this is a remarkably diverse, rectilinear script, written, like all Arabic scripts, from right to left. Early Qur'ans, copied in the Kufic script (fig. 4), were generally written in black or dark brown ink. Short vowels were usually indicated by red, green, or gold dots, and diacritical marks distinguishing certain consonants were denoted by diagonal strokes. (This system was in common use until the eleventh century.) Gold illumination sometimes signaled the beginning of each chapter, and gold medallions were often used to denote groups of five or ten verses.

Parchment, which is made from cured and scraped animal skin, was the preferred material for early Islamic and early medieval Qur'ans. The horizontal format of the parchment page works particularly well with the angular Kufic script, in which certain letters are written in broad, horizontal strokes. A few rare Qur'ans were produced on dyed parchment, and the museum’s collection includes a page from one of these sumptuous manuscripts, which was copied in gold Kufic on parchment dyed blue (fig. 5). Although papermaking was already known in the early Islamic period, parchment seems to have been preferred for Qur'ans for as long as Kufic script remained in popular use, up to the twelfth century. Not only was Kufic script an ideal partner for the parchment page, but its rectilinear form was also well suited to inscriptions in a variety of media, such as wood, stone, textiles, and ceramics. In these instances the script is often embellished by palmettes or leaves that sprout from the tops of the letters; this type of writing is known as foliated Kufic.

Of the many diverse arts that flourished in the early Islamic period, textiles played an especially significant role in society, one that continued in subsequent periods. Textiles were ubiquitous in Islamic lands, serving as clothing, household furnishings, and portable architecture (tents). The manufacture of and trade in textiles were highly sophisticated and profitable industries that built upon Byzantine and Sasanian traditions. Often made with costly materials such as silk, and gold- and silver-wrapped thread and decorated with complex designs, textiles were luxury goods signifying wealth and social status. Islamic textiles were also widely exported to the West, where their prominence is underscored by their impact on European languages. For example, the English words cotton and mohair derive from Arabic, while taffeta and seersucker come from Persian.

Despite their prevalence, comparatively few textiles have survived from the early Islamic period. Textiles are inherently fragile, and because of their value Islamic fabrics in all periods were cut down and reused over and over again until they literally wore out. Many of the extant early Islamic textiles were found in Egypt, primarily in graves, where the dark and dry conditions helped to preserve them. The fragments that have survived are fabricated from cotton, linen, silk, and wool, often dyed vivid colors. They demonstrate a well-developed textile technology notable for its use of complicated and richly colored designs.

One of the most common types of early Islamicand early medieval textiles is decorated with a long band inscribed with the name and titles of the ruler, as well as the date and place of manufacture. Such inscribed fabrics, of which a number are preserved in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are known as tiraz, from the Persian word for embroidery. As this name suggests, the epigraphic decoration (rendered in Kufic script) was often finely embroidered (see Early Medieval Art [fig. 16] ), but the inscriptions could also be woven directly into the cloth, a technique known as tapestry-weaving.

Other types of early Islamic fabrics were also tapestry-woven, for example, a fragment in the museum’s collection, whose colorful decoration reflects the influence of Sasanian art (fig. 6). This textile dates from the eighth or ninth century and was likely produced in Egypt, where tapestry-weaving had existed since Pharaonic times. Its linen ground bears a silk decorative band of rather ungainly birds, perhaps ducks, each enclosed by a medallion. The medallions alternate with twin pairs of wings, an abstracted version of the Sasanian royal crown motif, discussed above (fig. 1). The beaded border above and below, a common means of decoration in early Islamic textiles, was also inspired by Sasanian design. Although the textile’s once-brilliant colors have been dimmed by time, and we can now only imagine the larger garment, wall hanging, or cushion it may once have been, it nonetheless enriches our visual perception of early Islamic civilization.

The art of pottery was greatly advanced in the ninth century with the development of the technique of luster painting. Luster painting is a spectacular means of decorating pottery, perhaps in imitation of precious metal, which was first developed in Iraq and subsequently spread to Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Spain. The production of luster-decorated pottery was complicated, costly, and time-consuming, indicating that such objects were regarded as luxury wares. This technique combines silver and copper oxides with sulfur and other materials, which are applied in liquefied form to the surface of a previously glazed and fired object. The ware is then refired in a muffled, or reducing, kiln, so that the oxygen is drawn out from the metal oxides, producing a dazzling metallic surface. Lusterware can vary in color from a rich gold to a deep reddish brown.

In the earliest phase of this technique, two or more luster colors could be applied to a single object, but it was extremely difficult to produce such polychrome lusterwares successfully, and monochrome luster became the norm. An excellent example of polychrome luster is a bowl painted in yellow and brown luster and decorated with vegetal and abstract designs (fig. 7). The prominent split-leaf motif on the four quadrants of the bowl is another abstracted, vegetal version of the pair of wings from the Sasanian royal crown.

Based on textual accounts, Chinese porcelains are known to have been exported to, and admired by, the Abbasid court; they have also been excavated at a variety of sites throughout the Abbasid empire, suggesting a widespread taste for these costly imported wares. In order to satisfy that demand Islamic potters in the ninth century began to imitate the whiteness of high-fired porcelain by covering low-fired earthenware with an opaque white glaze of tin oxide.

Bowl
fig. 8 Bowl
Panel with
Bowl with epigraphic and vegetal decoration

Although the shapes of these ninth century tin-glazed wares also frequently follow Chinese prototypes, their decoration demonstrates greater originality. In contrast to the pure white surface of the originals, potters in Iraq painted into the raw glazed surface in cobalt blue, copper green, or manganese purple, which was fixed in a single firing. Both geometric and vegetal designs are common, as seen, for example, in a bowl decorated in cobalt blue that combines the two types of motifs (fig. 8).

One of the most important arts of the ninth century is architectural ornament, rendered in stucco, wood, or stone. The museum’s beautifully carved wood panel of this period (fig. 9), for instance, comes from Egypt, where wood, on account of its rarity and cost, was decorated with care and used in contexts generally reserved for luxury materials. Although it is impossible to say how this wood panel was used originally – perhaps it once formed part of a door – it is possible to assign it to the late ninth century on the basis of its distinctive decoration. Decorated in the beveled style, so called on account of the characteristic slant of the carved design, the panel depicts highly stylized leaves that have been transformed into abstract motifs. As is typical of this style, it is impossible to distinguish between background and foreground or between natural and abstract forms. The beveled style may have first been developed at Samarra, in northern Iraq, which briefly replaced Baghdad as the Abbasid capital, from 836 to 892. This style was soon adopted by artists in many parts of the Islamic empire, including Egypt.

The first two centuries of Abbasid rule saw the emergence and dissemination of a new Islamic style of art – as exemplified by the objects described above – in which pre-Islamic themes were fully assimilated or transformed and purely Islamic forms and techniques were introduced and further refined. With the dissolution of Abbasid authority, regional modes of expression began to develop, using this newly created idiom.

The Samanids were one of several Persian dynasties that established independent control over the eastern Islamic provinces of Khurasan and Transoxiana in the late ninth and tenth centuries. The age of the Samanids witnessed a rebirth of Persian culture, marking the rise of modern Persian literature. To this period belongs a distinctive slip-painted ceramic ware featuring elegant black Kufic inscriptions set against a white ground. This type of ware is associated with the two preeminent ceramic centers of the tenth century: Nishapur, in Khurasan, and Samarqand, in Transoxiana.

Ewer
fig. 11 Ewer
Ewer
fig. 12 Ewer
Container in the form of an animal
fig. 13 Container in the Form of an Animal

The collection includes several such slip-painted epigraphic vessels. They were made from humble earthenware, disguised and beautified through the application of a (white) slip, a semifluid colored clay used as a means of coloring and decorating the object, which was then covered by a colorless, transparent glaze. On one of these (fig. 10), the black inscription encircles the interior of the bowl, while the spaces between the letters are filled by abstract decoration that is augmented by the color red. The inscription is read by turning the bowl counterclockwise. As is typical of the epigraphic slip-painted wares, the Arabic inscription presents a proverb that retains some resonance even today: "Frugality is a symptom of poverty." On a rare spouted ewer (fig. 11) the bold inscription, perfectly suited to the vessel's contours, announces its function: "Drink from it/May it be to your health!"

The art of pre-Islamic Iran had a particularly strong impact on the development of early Islamic metalwork, in which traditional forms and techniques were carried on. Gilded silver was a favorite material in Sasanian times, and such precious metals also seem to have been used in the production of luxury wares in early Islamic Iran, based on evidence from historical and literary texts. The silver and gold objects described in the textual sources have not survived in any quantity and were perhaps melted down in times of need. A large number of bronze and brass vessels and utensils are preserved, however, attesting to the high degree of skill and sophistication among Islamic metalworkers.

One such object, perhaps dating to the tenth century, is a bronze ewer with a bull’s head (fig. 12). Bronze vessels of this type should probably be regarded as luxury wares, and they follow a long-standing practice in Iran of creating zoomorphic vessels. Here the metalworker has surmounted the body of the ewer with a bovine-headed spout, which must have provoked delight and even mirth whenever liquid was poured from it. Animal forms are frequently employed in the design of utilitarian objects in Islamic art, not only in metalwork but in pottery and glass as well. One particularly notable example in the museum’s collection is a charming glass perfume container in the form of a kneeling quadruped, possibly a camel, whose long, elegant neck serves as the vessel’s spout (fig. 13). Here, in order to transform the animal into a functional vessel, it has been reduced to its most basic yet recognizable forms. The elegant, curved neck of the camel has been further elongated to serve as the vessel's spout, the hump is reconfigured as the handle, and the tiny, almost vestigial feet represent the legs folded beneath the beast.

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Image in top banner:
Bowl, Iraq, ninth century; earthenware, overglaze polychrome luster painted; 2 3/4 x 91/2 in. (6.9 x 24 cm); The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky M.73.5.238


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Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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