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Art and Civilization in the Golden age of Islam

A fun look at the beautiful art of one of my favourite eras in history!

Erin Shellick

on 12 February 2014

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Transcript of Art and Civilization in the Golden age of Islam

Art: a reflection and a reflector of civilization
Styles and Influences
The Arts of the Object
Most three-dimensional works made in the Islamic golden age were either designed for everyday use or religious ceremonies.
Music is yet another of the many fields that underwent developments in the Islamic golden age.
Before the start of the golden age, Islamic architecture was mostly copied from other cultures, but in the following centuries, it developed its own distinctive style.

The Arts of the Book
Text is a central element of Islamic art, partly because of its association with the Qu'ran. Many great Muslim artists are still preoccupied with the inclusion of beautiful writing in their art.
Art and Civilization
in the
Golden Age of Islam

Calligraphy & Illumination
Ceramics, Metal, Glass and More
Thank you for exploring!
Religious and Secular
Contrary to popular Western belief, it was never forbidden to portray human figures in general Islamic art. Religious art never involves humans or animals, because the Qu'ran forbids anything the comes too close to resembling idol worship.
The Islamic empire occupied regions that were once part of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, which spread across most of the Middle East in their day.
A bowl decorated with a hunting scene
The Dome of the Rock, a mosque in Jerusalem, built in 692
The Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church (which was eventually converted into a mosque) in Istanbul, built in the 6th century CE.
Calligraphy was considered the noblest of the art forms, and was applied to art of all kinds. Note the Arabic script at the top of this decorated arch:
Words were used to convey visual beauty just as much as messages.
Drawing and Painting
The Islamic golden age was a time of learning and knowledge; in other words, a great time for books! Many surviving manuscripts of the time are transcriptions of older works, including Greek and Roman text. Many advances were made in medicine and astronomy at the time, so we have many examples of texts on these subjects as well.
Visual arts done on paper or parchment were rarely done for their own sake; most of the time, they accompanied and supplemented text in books.
Bookmaking was collective work, with calligraphers, painters, writers, and bookbinders all working together, often under the supervision of wealthy patrons or master librarians.
However, illustrations from the Islamic golden age are still beautiful in their own right, and can be admired without reading the writings they stand beside.
Like many other Islamic art forms, architecture was heavily influenced by Byzantine design features; the use of mosaics, domes and sturdy stone walls covered with ornamented marble slabs. Many of these features are now typical of modern mosques.
Buildings tended to be relatively simple and clean-lined on the outside, in contrast with incredibly lavish, elaborate interiors.
An Arabic medical text, explaining the workings of the human eye
An illuminated page from a copy of the Qu'ran
A chess set
Textiles played an important role in trade, and were one of the most important exports from the Middle East, traveling all over the known world. Many English names for fabrics- cotton, taffeta, mohair- have their origins in Arabic.
Fabric served as a major status symbol for the upper classes; it was often brightly dyed and embroidered, and could have precious metals woven right into it.
Although few examples of fabric survive from the golden age itself, many techniques were developed or elaborated that are still in use today. Islamic writing often makes references to fabric and clothing as well.
Some of the best examples of Islamic styling, especially the use of geometric and botanical imagery, are found on fabric.
Another primary feature of Islamic architecture is the use of various types of arches.
(Left) The Alhambra palace, in Grenada. (Below) A ceiling from inside the Alhambra.
A glass goblet
Metalwork was gilded, engraved, and enameled. Among the upper classes, even armor was splendidly decorated!
Three-dimensional art media were used to make both practical objects and elaborate status symbols.
They also made important trade goods, and were sometimes used as architectural accents, such as the mosaic floor below.
Glass making was a well-established art form in the Middle East long before the rise of Islam, and it continued to develop in subsequent centuries. Glass makers experimented with new techniques, and passed older ones down through the generations.
Some of the most numerous artifacts in the Islamic wings of museums today are made from these materials.
Muslims learned how to build with arches from the Byzantines, who were preserving construction techniques they had inherited from the Romans. Well-placed arches allowed them to use less materials in their buildings, and create wide, airy spaces.
Horseshoe Arch
Transverse Arch
Pointed Arch
Trefoil Arch
After the era of the Crusades, when the Middle East was flooded by various waves of Europeans, arches became a distinctive features in Medieval churches.
In fact, the arch was just one of many Islamic developments that came to Europe with the Crusades.
Because of the high literacy rate and interest in learning, we have many fine surviving examples of Medieval Islamic literature.
The centuries from approximately 800 to 1200 saw a rise in literacy in the Middle East, for a variety of reasons.
Historical Influences
A collection of glass beakers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic wing
However, depictions of plants are both allowed and frequent in religious art, and there are many examples of depictions of animate life in secular, and especially courtly, paintings, drawings and more.
Islamic art is characterized by both a use of geometric patterning and stylized botanical motifs (known as "arabesques" in the West). Both of these features are filled with religious significance.
Floor tiles with arabesque patterns
A wooden wall panel with geometric designs
Yet unlike in many other civilizations, craft objects have full status as art objects in the Islamic world. Thus, some of the finest examples of golden age-era art that has survived the centuries are dishes, utensils, furnishings and the like.
Art and Religion
Much of Islamic art, both in the golden age and today, serves as a reflection of Muslim worldviews and cultural values.
We have already seen the importance of books and text in Islamic art, which exists because of the importance of words in the religion of Islam, as well as the religious significance of common visual themes.
The link below contains a list of some notable authors from the golden age:
Omar Khayyam
Abu Nuwas
Abolqasem Ferdowsi
Paper making methods brought by Chinese merchants, standardized editions of the Qu'ran, a single widespread form of Arabic, and the rise of public libraries and universities all contributed to the intellectual climate of the times, making it easier for anyone to gain an education.
Both of these cultures had rich artistic traditions, and had a profound influence on the art of the Muslims who eventually controlled their lands.
The use of circles (with no end), repeating patterns, and complex designs creating the illusion of endless repitition in geometric art are meant to remind viewers of the infinite nature of Allah.
Arabesque patterns are deliberately stylized, because Muslim artists believe that they should not directly replicate nature, but convey the beauty it represents instead.
Information about the characteristics of art, artistic philosophy, and religion
Covers literature and literacy
Lots of facts about design, book arts and three-dimensional crafts
The history of textiles from all over the globe
Detailed information and lovely images of architecture, especialy arches
A wealth-horde of facts and images for all fields of Islamic art
Great general information
About Byzantine architecture
About music
Sheila R. Canby,
Islamic Art in Detail
: the British Museum Press, 2005
Covers many facets of Islamic art; wonderful pictures
Interestingly, music was a highly egalitarian field; we have several records of skilled, well-respected female performers, composers and teachers.
Starting in the late 7th century, a distinctive style of Arabic music emerged. It was influenced both by older Middle Eastern music and by styles from lands under Muslim rule.
The 9th century saw a rise in written treatises on music, including many developments of theory and translations of Greek musical writings.
Primary instruments included the ney flute (left) and the oud (right), an ancestor of European stringed instruments.
An Arabic musical treatise
An example of early Middle Eastern notation
Most Western history students are taught that the centuries between the fall of Rome and Norman conquest were dark ages.
This is true in Europe's case, but the Dark Ages were not a global phenomenon.
In fact, there was one part of the world that enjoyed quite the opposite of a dark age around the same time...
From the mid 8th century until the Mongol conquests of the 1250s, it saw an incredible renaissance, a rise in cultural innovation and interest in the arts.
Islam had been growing as both a religious and political force since its birth in the 4th century, and by around 700, it had spread all through the Middle East, and much of North Africa, Spain and Western Asia.
Times when art and learning slowed to a crawl, when people were more concerned with survival than culture.
In this presentation, we will explore the most important art forms of the Islamic golden age, and discover some interesting links between the art and the culture that produced it.
Are you ready? Then start clicking! Remember that if you want a closer look at something, you can always scroll down to zoom into it...
For Muslims, art and beauty are closely linked with divinity; when done well, art gives both its maker and viewers a sort of transcendental experience, bringing them closer to Allah.
The Islamic empire was among the first "universal civilizations", bringing people of myriad nationalities and classes together through conquest and trade.
Its artistic style, with its influences from all over the known world, reflects its widespread, far-flung nature.
The Muslim politicians of the golden age were famous for their tolerant treatment of foreigners; non-Muslims living in occupied lands were granted full rights as citizens, including freedom of religion, provided that they payed taxes.
The golden age Muslims' high value of easily transported art and craft objects reflects the emphasis on trade and cultural border crossing in their culture.
Their love of knowledge and the centrality of text in their religion seems like a perfect pairing with their high respect for the written word.
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