Early Medieval Period
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Early Medieval Period: Art

 

Combining innovative styles, techniques, and forms with previously conceived ones, early medieval art is often marked by strong regional characteristics. Compared with early Islamic art, works of art from this period make much greater use of figural decoration and forms.

Bottle
fig. 14 Bottle
Bracelet
fig. 15 Bracelet
Tiraz (inscribed textile)

The wealth and material prosperity enjoyed by Fatimid Egypt and Syria during this period are reflected in the opulence of the art. The Fatimids evidently had a taste for meticulously fabricated goldwork and intricately carved vessels of rock crystal, a type of transparent, colorless quartz whose surface can be brilliantly burnished. One such rock crystal vessel in the museum’s collection is decorated with abstract vegetal ornament that harks back to the Abbasid period; its diminutive scale is remarkable given the complexities of carving and polishing this hard stone (fig. 14).

Jewelry is an important aspect of Islamic art, and the museum’s collection includes a magnificent gold bracelet (fig. 15) that demonstrates the artistry and luxury of Islamic goldworking techniques in the Fatimid period. Fashioned from a single flat sheet of gold, the shank of the bracelet was decorated with repoussé and chased designs and then folded into a hollow tube. Repoussé is a type of relief ornament that is pushed out from behind; here the fine relief designs include human heads, birds, and harpies (human-headed birds). The decoration of the elaborate circular clasp illustrates several complex techniques: twisted wire spirals, granulation (decoration of the surface with tiny spheroids or balls), and filigree (wire made into decorative configurations). The stones are emeralds and rubies; the latter have been set with rock crystal, a favorite stone in the Fatimid period. Bracelets of this type were evidently made and worn in pairs, further magnifying the effect of the fine workmanship and precious materials. Such gold jewelry served not only as a spectacular form of personal adornment but also as an indicator of a woman’s wealth and social standing.

Another measure of social status was personal dress. Textiles from the first centuries of the Islamic era survive mainly in the form of fragments, including tiraz, with their characteristic embroidered or woven inscriptions supplying the name and titles of the ruler. Such cloth, produced in state factories, would be distributed by the reigning monarch to members of his court. A remarkable tiraz in LACMA's collection (fig. 16) that testifies to the ecumenical nature of Fatmid society bears a woven inscription in the names of the ruler al-'Aziz (r. 975–96) and his chief minister or vizier Ibn Killis (served 977–90). Killis, who was of Jewish origin, was famous for the financial reforms that helped bring enormous prosperity to Egypt as well as to the vizier.

Bowl
fig. 17 Bowl
Flask
fig. 18 Flask
Double page from a manuscript of the Qur'an
fig. 19 Double Page from a Manuscript of the Qur'an
Astrolabe
fig. 20 Astrolabe

Under the Fatimids ceramics and glassworking were also highly developed art forms. Artisans of this period revived or continued earlier techniques but gave them their own distinctive stamp. The art of luster-painted ceramics was likely introduced in Egypt at least by the early eleventh century. Fatimid lusterware is typically decorated with figures, both human and animal, as can be seen in a bowl with four golden fish alternating with an inscription repeating the Arabic word for prosperity, on an opaque turquoise ground (fig. 17). Several glass objects of the period are included in the collection, notably a small flask with handles, representing the revival and adaptation of a highly decorative ancient Egyptian glass technique called marvered and combed glass (fig.18). On this example opaque white glass thread was trailed around and then marvered, or pressed, into the blackish purple glass of the flask; the glass thread was then combed, producing a distinctive featherlike pattern. Finally, opaque turquoise glass thread was trailed around the rim of the flask.

The art of Islamic Spain during this period is somewhat less inventive and energetic than that produced elsewhere, which may have to do with the relative isolation of Spain and North Africa under conservative Almoravid and Almohad rule. Perhaps on account of the mood of uncertainty created by the Christian reconquest, which had already succeeded in severely curtailing the areas of Muslim rule, the art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries seems to look backward to earlier masterpieces of the Islamic golden age in Spain in the ninth and tenth centuries. This later art draws on traditional forms, materials, and techniques, further refining an earlier decorative idiom. Evidence of this is found in architectural decoration, decorative arts (such as textiles), and calligraphy.

One such example in the museum’s collection is a bifolio or double page from a manuscript of the Qur'an, datable to the thirteenth century (fig. 19). Although parchment had already begun to pass out of vogue elsewhere in the Islamic world, this bifolio, copied in gold ink on parchment, reflects the conservative nature of Spain in the early medieval period, as does its distinctive script. Known as Maghribi, after the region of North Africa that roughly encompasses modern Morocco, this cursive script is a direct descendent of Kufic. While retaining some of the solemnity and grandeur of the earlier rectilinear script, Maghribi incorporates graceful, deeply curved lines. It developed in the early twelfth century in both Spain and North Africa, and its use is restricted to these regions.

Roughly contemporary with the bifolio from the Qur'an is an astronomical instrument known as an astrolabe, a device Muslims inherited from the Hellenistic world and then passed on to medieval Europe.  According to its inscriptions, this handsome gilt brass astrolabe was made in Seville, in southern Spain (fig. 20). Like all such instruments, it was designed to measure the altitude of the stars, sun, or moon, and to establish different astronomical and topographical associations without resorting to calculations or formulas. It was especially valuable for timekeeping, as the Muslim times of prayer are astronomically determined. In addition to being functional, the astrolabe was also intended to be beautiful. This example is unusual in that it seems to have been altered nearly seventy years after it was made, possibly in Egypt or Syria; Seville had by that time already fallen to the Christian reconquest.

In Iran the waves of Turkish tribes that had emigrated from the Central Asian steppe adopted Persian language and culture, which they patronized and invigorated. The great flowering of the arts in this period has more to do with the Turkish ruling elite’s appetite for Persian culture than with their own ethnicity. Architectural decoration, the arts of the book, textiles, glass, metalwork, and pottery all attained a high level, enriched by a decorative vocabulary that was frequently dominated by figural representation. Figurative decoration was so prevalent that it even transformed Arabic inscriptions, which came to be inhabited by humans and animals, while the letters themselves were at times transfigured into creatures.

Mihrab or tombstone
Plate
fig. 22 Bowl

This predilection for "animated" writing did not affect inscriptions produced for a religious context, which, when written in Kufic, were also transformed or embellished, but by abstract, vegetal designs (foliated Kufic) or by interlacing the shafts of the vertical letters (plaited Kufic). For example, a tall carved marble slab from the mid-twelfth century, which is covered by bands of epigraphic decoration, is inscribed with different types of foliated Kufic as well as with the cursive Naskhi script (fig. 21). The viewer need not be able to read Arabic (still the primary language for religious and dedicatory inscriptions in Iran) to appreciate the monumental beauty of these scripts or to note the rich complexity of the different decorative transformations of the letters in the outer epigraphic bands. It is unclear whether this stone panel functioned as a tombstone or a mihrab (prayer niche), a characteristic element in mosques and other religious edifices. The mihrab is usually concave, but flat examples also occur. In fact, one is depicted at the center of this panel (they are also a common form of decoration on tombstones). The carved inscriptions that fill and surround the central niche may provide a clue to the panel’s purpose. They include quotations from the Qur'an, one of which refers to the act of prayer, suggesting that this object originally functioned as a mihrab. The elegant Kufic inscription at the base of the stone provides the signature of the artist, cAli Ahmad ibn (son of) Abu’l-Qasim al-Kharrat. His father, Abu’l-Qasim al-Kharrat, was also a stone-carver, and his signature is preserved on two marble tombstones.

Ceramic wares of this period demonstrate the continued refinement of earlier techniques as well as the development of new ones. A type of artificial ceramic body known as fritware was developed, perhaps in the eleventh century, which was to be of signal importance to the history of Islamic pottery. Intended to approximate the white color and light weight of Chinese porcelain, fritware is an amalgam of silica (e.g., ground quartz), glass frit (partially fused glass), and a small proportion of fine white clay. This technologically sophisticated and aesthetically appealing ceramic ware soon supplanted the darker and heavier earthenware as the preferred material of most Islamic potters.

Luster-painted pottery, first developed in Iraq in the ninth century, was produced in Egypt and Syria under the Fatimids, and by the second half of the twelfth century it had reached Iran, where it achieved new heights. The center for this ceramic industry in Iran was the city of Kashan, where the recipe for this complicated technique must have been well guarded, shared by only a few families of potters. Lusterware, primarily vessels and tiles for architectural revetment (wall facing), was made in Kashan into the fourteenth century, its production apparently undisturbed by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. Hallmarks of the Kashan style include the use of plump birds, both standing and in flight, and tiny spiral and commalike patterns scratched through the lustered surface, employed as a background or filler motif. Figural imagery abounds among these lusterwares, and when animals are represented, they are very often depicted with decorative spots, regardless of the appropriateness to the species. Several other closely related styles were also produced at Kashan.

The museum’s collection is particularly rich in lusterware from Kashan. Among the finest and most visually appealing of these pieces is a bowl with pale blue glaze, overpainted with chocolate brown luster (fig. 22). At the center of the bowl is a monumental spotted bear, reserved (depicted in silhouette) against the luster ground. The animal’s form and proportions are well suited to the contours of the vessel. As is typical of wares decorated with a single, large figure, the remaining background space is filled by curled palmette leaves.

Ewer
fig. 23 Ewer
Candlestick
fig. 24 Candlestick
Beaker
fig. 25 Beaker
Lamp
fig. 26 Lamp

A new type of luxury ceramic notable for its multicolored figural decoration was introduced in Iran during the second half of the twelfth century. The polychrome surface was produced through a costly and complicated double firing similar to the luster painting technique, and in fact both wares are attributable to Kashan, where they may have been made by some of the same potters, in the same workshops. In this process, which modern scholars often refer to as mina’i (from the Persian word for "enamel"), a ceramic vessel was covered with a white or a turquoise opaque glaze and then fired. The decoration was applied both under and over the glaze. Stable colors such as cobalt blue and turquoise, which could be fired successfully at a high temperature, were applied under the glaze before the first firing. The less stable colors — including red, black, and gold — were applied to the cold glazed surface and fixed in a second firing at a lower temperature.

The lively figural designs that characterize mina’i ware sometimes include complicated narrative scenes, some of which clearly refer to Persian literature, specifically the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic. In other instances these wares are decorated with horsemen, or seated and standing princes, courtiers, and entertainers, often clad in boldly patterned costumes. An excellent and well-preserved example of the latter type of mina'i is the elegant ewer decorated with small, delicately painted horsemen in the upper register, and seated courtiers, a musician, and perhaps a dancer in the lower band (fig. 23). The exact meaning of these figures, which seem to represent the "good life," has yet to be deciphered. Mina'i ware was apparently not produced after the thirteenth century, although it remains one of the best-known and most popular types of medieval Iranian ceramics.

Metalwork of this period also demonstrates a refinement and a surpassing of earlier techniques. The inlaying of bronze or brass with precious metals was practiced in the early Islamic period, but on a limited scale. In the early medieval period metalworkers began to cover large areas of the base metal surface with decoration inlaid in copper and silver, gold and silver, or silver alone, perhaps as a less costly means of imitating the richness of objects fashioned entirely of precious metal. Objects such as candlesticks, pen-cases, inkwells, and a large variety of vessel types were decorated with this technique, which seems to have emerged in the eastern Iranian region in the second half of the twelfth century. Wire and very fine pieces of precious metal were inserted into designs cut into the surface of the object; the precious metal was then generally decorated with finer details. Figural decoration; scenes of feasting, hunting, and other forms of entertainment; and astrological symbols were the most common types of ornament. Such objects were also decorated with Arabic inscriptions written in animated script.

A silver-inlaid brass candlestick in the collection (fig. 24) demonstrates this type of decoration and technique. Its base is circumscribed by a band of alternating figural medallions and epigraphic cartouches. The latter are filled with animated Naskhi and animated and plaited Kufic inscriptions. Stylized faces surmount the shafts of the vertical letters of the Naskhi inscription or are arranged along the top of the plaited Kufic inscription. As is typical, these inscriptions offer a series of good wishes to the unnamed owner of the candlestick. Each of the four medallions encloses a seated reveler or musician, part of the imagery associated with a feast, one of whom is shown with a raised beaker. The motif of the seated or enthroned figure raising a drinking vessel occurs frequently in Islamic art and is a part of the larger theme of courtly feasting and entertainment.

The beaker held by the small seated reveler on the candlestick is of a common shape, one that is found in contemporary glass, including an example in the museum’s collection (fig. 25). Although this specific type of vessel was evidently known throughout large areas of the Islamic world, the museum’s delicate glass beaker was most likely produced in the eastern Mediterranean during the period of Ayyubid rule. Part of its beauty stems from the way the shape and decoration work together to suggest a monumentality that belies its diminutive scale. The opaque blue glass is decorated with vertical ribs that alternate with marvered opaque white glass threads, and a white glass thread is trailed around the rim of the vessel. The beaker is an elegant reinterpretation of techniques practiced in slightly earlier Fatimid glass, discussed above. The collection includes other examples of Ayyubid glass, such as a small but elegant lamp (fig. 26), whose distinctive form would be echoed in the brilliant enameled glass lamps in the succeeding late medieval period, under the Mamluk dynasty (fig. 37).

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Image in top banner:
Ewer, Iran, late twelfth to early thirteenth century; fritware, overglaze painted (mina'i); height: 13 in. (33.0 cm); The Madina Collection of Islamic Art, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, M.2002.1.7


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