Islamic Art
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Introduction

 

Islamic art is perhaps the most accessible expression of a complex civilization that often seems enigmatic to outsiders. Through its brilliant use of color and its superb balance between design and form, Islamic art creates an immediate visual impact. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends distances in time and space, as well as differences in language, culture, and creed. Islamic art not only invites a closer look but also beckons the viewer to learn more. For an American audience a visit to the Islamic galleries of a museum such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can represent the first step toward penetrating the history of a religion and a culture that are often in the news but are little understood.

This website is conceived as a companion to the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Intended as a general introduction to Islamic art, it draws upon examples from the museum’s comprehensive collection, which includes works from an area extending from southern Spain to Central Asia, ranging in date from the seventh century up to the present day. The text is designed for readers who seek to go beyond the obvious surface beauty of Islamic art to discover the rich historical and cultural traditions from which this art emerged.

The term Islamic art may be confusing to some. It not only describes the art created specifically in the service of Islam, but it also characterizes secular art produced in lands under Islamic rule or influence, whatever the artist’s or the patron’s religious affiliation. The term suggests an art unified in style and purpose, and indeed there are certain common features that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands. Although this is a highly dynamic art, which is often marked by strong regional characteristics as well as by significant influences from other cultures, it retains an overall coherence that is remarkable given its vast geographic and temporal boundaries. Of paramount concern to the development of this singular art is Islam itself, which fostered the creation of a distinctive visual culture with its own unique artistic language.

 

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art houses one of the most significant collections of Islamic art in the world. These widely diverse arts, from an area extending from southern Spain to Central Asia, trace the distinctive visual imagination of Islamic artists over a period of fourteen hundred years. The collection comprises more than 1,700 works, of which some 150 examples are on view; these include glazed ceramics, inlaid metalwork, enameled glass, carved wood and stone, and manuscript illustration, illumination, and calligraphy. Particular strengths of the collection are glazed pottery and tiles from Iran and Turkey ; glass, especially from the late seventh to the mid-thirteenth century; and Persian and Turkish arts of the book.

The museum began to concentrate seriously on Islamic art in 1973, with the acquisition of the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, the generous gift of Joan Palevsky. Although the Heeramaneck collection forms the nucleus of the Islamic holdings, the focus and scope of the collection have developed considerably since 1973. Two important additions, both gifts, occurred in the 1980s. In 1985 the noted collector Edwin Binney, 3rd, bequeathed more than one hundred works, in particular examples of the arts of the book and ceramics of the Ottoman period. Approximately fifty glass objects, primarily of the early Islamic period, from Hans and Varya Cohn's splendid collection were given to the museum in 1988. The collection has been augmented further over the past two decades through gift and purchase, most notably the acquisition in 2002 of the Madina Collection of Islamic Art, made possible in large part by a generous gift from longtime LACMA benefactor and Trustee Camilla Chandler Frost. Its addition has created a new international focus on Los Angeles and on LACMA.

Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. It has always been considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, which is written in Arabic. This preoccupation with beautiful writing extended to all arts – including secular manuscripts; inscriptions on palaces; and those applied to metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood, and textiles – and to non-Arabic-speaking peoples within the Islamic commonwealth whose languages – such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu – were written in the Arabic script.

Another characteristic of Islamic art is a preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God. This type of nonrepresentational decoration may have been developed to such a high degree in Islamic art because of the absence of figural imagery, at least within a religious context.

Contrary to a popular misconception, however, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic art. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media and in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. It is important to note, nevertheless, that representational imagery is almost invariably restricted to a private context. Figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious monuments. This absence may be attributed to an Islamic antipathy toward anything that might be mistaken for idols or idolatry, which are explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an.

In Islamic cultures the so-called decorative arts provide the primary means of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are preeminent. Illuminated manuscripts, woven textiles and carpets, inlaid metalwork, blown glass, glazed ceramics, and carved wood and stone all absorbed the creative energies of artists, becoming highly developed art forms. These works include small-scale objects of daily use, such as delicate glass beakers, as well as more monumental architectural decoration, for example, glazed tile panels from building façades. Such objects were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished, often with rare and costly materials, suggesting that the people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.

Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other cultures. The construction of mosques and other religious buildings, including their decoration and furnishings, was the responsibility of the ruler and the prerogative of high court officials. Such monuments not only provided for the spiritual needs of the Muslim community but often served educational and charitable functions as well. Royal patronage of secular art was also a standard feature of Islamic sovereignty, one that enabled the ruler to demonstrate the splendor of his court and, by extension, the superiority of his state. Evidence of courtly patronage is derived from the works of art themselves, but an equally important source of information is the extensive body of historical texts that attest to royal sponsorship of the arts almost throughout the Islamic period. These historical works also indicate that only a fraction of such court-sponsored art has survived; objects made of precious materials are particularly rare. From the fourteenth century onward, especially in eastern Islamic lands, the arts of the book provide the best documentation of courtly patronage.

Of course, not all works of Islamic art were sponsored by the court; in fact, the majority of objects and manuscripts in museum collections originated elsewhere. Such works of art – including pottery, base metalware, carpets, and textiles – have often been viewed as the products of urban, middle-class patronage. These objects nonetheless frequently reflect the same styles and make use of the same forms and techniques employed in courtly art.

Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles. Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique.

As this discussion may suggest, Islamic art forms a large and complex subject. While there are several different means of classifying Islamic art, the text that follows adheres to the four-part chronological division used in the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This system of classification is intended to emphasize the overall unity of Islamic art within each of the four chronological periods, while also taking into account the numerous dynasties whose successive reigns punctuate Islamic history and whose patronage had an important impact on the development of Islamic art. The early Islamic period, seventh through tenth century, covers the origins of Islam; the creation of a religious, political, and cultural commonwealth; and the formation of a new style of art. In the early medieval period, from the eleventh through the mid-thirteenth century, and the late medieval period, the mid-thirteenth through the fifteenth century, various regional powers emerged, which promoted diverse forms of cultural expression. Finally, the late Islamic period, the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, was an age of great empires, in which powerful dynastic patronage, more than ever before, helped to promote and shape artistic styles.

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Image in top banner:
Carved Finial, northern Iran, probably Mazanderan,, second half 14th century; wood with traces of paint; 14 x 6 in. (35.56 x 15.24 cm); The Madina Collection of Islamic Art, gift of Camilla Chandler Frost, M.2002.1.15


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For questions about the Islamic art collection at LACMA, contact middleeastart@lacma.org
Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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