Visual art developed in a very peculiar way in the Arab-Muslim countries. It was greatly influenced by Islam’s attitude toward the portrayal of living beings.
Since all the images of our world, according to orthodox Muslims, were created by Allah, trying to replicate them is a sin of pride, for which the artist will be punished in the afterlife. A well-known hadith states:
“Unhappiness to him who portrays a living being! On the Day of Judgment he will be required to give to the image his soul, but he will not be able to do so and will be burned in eternal flames.
This does not mean that there was a categorical ban on the depiction of living beings, but this type of artistic practice was frowned upon and was only used in secular art.
Because of this ambivalent attitude toward figurative representations, the art of ornamentation and calligraphy developed brilliantly in the countries where Islam took hold.
One of the most recognizable traits of Islamic art was the abundant use of ornamentation as the main decoration, which in Europe was called “arabesque” (from the French word for Arabesque).
It was based on a precise mathematical calculation and geometrical constructions. (Here one must recall the scientific achievements of the Arabic East in the Middle Ages.)
Each Arabesque element was self-sufficient but played the role of an integral part of a larger ornament, which in turn became a segment in the overall composition of the pattern.
The line, intertwined and winding, evolved into a continuous, regular, symmetrical pattern, which infinitely repeated and varying, covered virtually all surfaces of architectural structures – walls, vaults, floors, domes, etc.
In Europe, such an abundance of decoration was even called “the fear of empty space. However, the Oriental sages called it “the eternally continuing fabric of the universe.
The geometrical figures which made up the arabesque sometimes had not only an aesthetic but also a symbolic meaning. For instance, four vertical lines were considered in Muslim minds as a symbol of Allah (they were the basis of the word), a square symbolized Kaaba, a triangle as the all-seeing eye of the Most High, a five-pointed star or a pentagon as a reminder of the five pillars of Islam, etc.
Arabesque could be purely geometric, or it could be based on plant motifs. Often these two types of ornamentation were combined and supplemented by calligraphic inscriptions, which were also a decorative element.
A special attitude towards the Koran and, through it, the written word in Islam led to a special attitude towards the art of writing – calligraphy, which is sometimes called the most Islamic of all arts. It replaced images of God and saints in mosques and in the minds of believers, as well as sculpture and icons revered as objects of worship in Christianity.
Muslims saw in writing a reflection of divine beauty and harmony. By the ability to write beautifully, they judged the degree of a person’s spiritual and intellectual development.
According to one hadith, the Prophet himself (who was illiterate) said that “writing is half of knowledge. One of the famous eastern aphorisms: “The beauty of a man is in the beauty of his writing, and even better if it is the beauty of a wise man. It was also said of calligraphy that it is “the joy of eyes”, “language of the hand and elegance of thought”.
Arabic poets often used analogies comparing a woman’s body with the slender and flexible lines of Arabic ligature (as Islamic calligraphy is called), and the locks of her black hair with the curls that connect the words and letters. The sweet moles on her sweetheart’s face may have reminded the poet of the dots above the letters of Arabic script, and the scent of the ink was called the perfume of a scholar.
Calligraphy was based on the Arabs’ concept of proportionality and harmony which is inherent in everything created by Allah.
The most ancient style of calligraphy is Kufi which was the canonized script for Quranic inscriptions. It was particularly used in the decoration of mosques. Kufic writing could be recognized by its rather heavy, rectilinear lettering.
At the turn of the IX-X centuries the calligrapher Ibn Mukla living in Baghdad created the “khatt mansub” system, according to which the beauty and peculiarity of any handwriting depended on the proportions of vertical and horizontal lines in writing the letters, as well as on the ratio between the number of letters and words in a line.
From this system grew six classical styles of Arabic writing:
- tawki (“decree”), strikethrough and crisp;
- ricá (“cursive”), a simplified style where groups of dots above and below the letters merge into lines;
- naskh (“correspondence”), the most common today. Characterized by fine lines and rounded letterforms;
- raihani (“basil”), elegant and ornate;
- muhakkak (“regular”), a style recognizable by its elongated horizontal lines;
- sulz or sulus (“one third”), rather vigorous and monumental style. Its main principle is observance of a strict proportion of all elements (horizontal and vertical, straight and curved) – 1/3. The handwriting is very beautiful thanks to the elongated vertical lines and broad strokes; a peculiarity of sulce is that all rounded elements of letters are replaced by curves and loops.
From the graphic point of view they differed not only in proportions, letter slope, spaces, but also in character: the straight and stern kufi differed from the flexible and flowing sulcus handwriting which waved like liana stems; the clear and solemn muhakkak could not be confused with the graceful and refined raykhani which was compared with the finest aroma of blooming basil, etc.
It is worth mentioning that the Arabic script is characterized by the combination of letters in a word and words in a phrase when the letters are connected by an indissoluble line like growing out of each other which allowed Europeans to call it Arabic script.
In Islamic countries calligraphy was perceived not only as the art of beautiful writing of letters and words, or as an element of décor, but could be applied as an independent form of artistic creation.
In the 15th-17th centuries, for instance, a specific decorative genre, qit’a, a miniature picture representing a sample of one or more calligraphic scripts, emerged.
The Arabic ligature, skillfully interwoven into the decorative ornamentation, decorated the interiors and exteriors of palaces and mosques, reminding the believers of the Koran contents, the basic provisions of the dogma and visibly embodying the beauty and harmony of the universe arranged by the Almighty.
Writings are present on the items of arts and crafts: crockery, jewelry, carpets and fabrics, weapons and armor, etc.
And, of course, calligraphy is a necessary and most important part of the book, where it was considered not only as a text and information carrier, but also as the most important aesthetic element.
Illustration or book miniatures played a special role in book decoration. It should be noted that the art of painting, despite a religious ban, was also considered noble. So in the “Charter of the Workshop of Painting Masters” it is written as follows:
“If anyone asks from whom painting originates, give the following answer: from Muhammad, God’s chosen one, may God bless him and send him peace. Because during the construction of the mosque of Medina, the Almighty Lord ordered Jibra’il to come down to Muhammad and give him the command to decorate the holy mosque of Medina. Hazrat Jibra’il brought thirty-two paints, gave them to Muhammad, and taught him how to paint. After this, painting became a commandment.
Medical encyclopedias, scientific and philosophical works of the most prominent thinkers, divans (poetry collections), mesnevi (poems), prose works, etc. were supplied with colorful images. (On Arabic medieval literature, see the articles at the links at the bottom of this publication).
It should be noted that only secular literary works were illustrated. The Koran was not allowed to be decorated with paintings, its only decoration was the writing itself and the ornaments.
The brilliantly colored drawings which adorned the manuscripts explained the content of the text and occupied most of the pages. Artists who were used to the two-dimensionality of traditional ornamental designs also depicted objects and characters flat, without using light and shade effects.
In this regard, artists of the Arab-Muslim world have achieved remarkable success in drawing, which they have acquired a special expressiveness.
Book illustrators also liked bright, saturated, juicy colors, which created an even greater effect of decorativeness. Much attention was paid not only to the image of the book character, but also the surrounding background and entourage. As cultural researchers A. Sadokhin and T. Grushevitskaya write about it:
The most celebrated masters of book miniatures were Iranian (Persian) artists, among whom Kamaletdin Behzat (15th century) and Reza Abbasi (Riza-yi ‘Abbasi) (17th century) enjoyed the greatest fame.
When looking at medieval eastern miniatures, one should also remember that artists often saw their task not only in illustrating the text, but also in conveying the hidden, hidden meaning of things with the help of painting. That is why they resorted to the language of symbols, with which all medieval art is saturated. Such symbols can be found, for instance, in poetry inspired by Sufism.
Calligraphy, decorative ornamentation and pictorial miniatures were an inseparable synthesis in book design. These handwritten editions were often very expensive works of art.
A lot of specialists were involved in their creation. All works were managed by the head of the project, who solved all issues of design and publication of the next “treasure”. Special workers covered the sheets of paper with starchy paste to make them dense and long-lasting, and polished them (as a result, the letters and patterns that were colored in ink were clear, bright and shiny).
An experienced calligrapher, while the paper was still wet, would cover the margins of the pages with decorative gold sprinkles (if this was the purpose of the design). Then skilled calligraphers filled them with the text, making sure to leave space for the illustrations. And only after that miniaturists would start their work. The finished sheets were sewn and bound. For the cover they used embossed leather, decorated with patterns, and sometimes with carving and varnish.
The price of a book or a manuscript depended on the presence and quantity of miniatures which only very rich people could afford. At a certain period, “publishers” had an interesting practice – to leave blank pages. When a paper “treasure” had an owner who had the necessary money, he could make an order to the artist to paint these sheets. Sometimes such “empties” remained unfilled for years!
In addition, these editions were often embroidered into separate sheets in order to sell them “at retail”. Therefore, only a few illustrated books have survived “as a whole.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the art of book miniatures gradually disappeared in the East, giving way to painting created according to European canons.