ISLAMIC ART-Sculpture and manuscript painting

The Islamic art involves a rare coincidence of techniques and aesthetics that did not come to be uniform, but that nevertheless reflected similar tastes and unity of thought. This can be mainly attributed to its religious faith: Islam included Arabs and Egyptians, Syrians and Berbers, Persians and Mongols, all peoples of entirely different race, language and culture. Ultimately, it was the pilgrimage, which is one of the five duties to all Muslims, which caused (much more than the Koran itself) this unification in taste and styles so characteristic of the Islamic art.

The fountain of the Lions, the centerpiece of the Courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra of Granada (Spain), was carved in the 11th century and is exceptionally large for sculptures of animals in Islamic art, (though the Pisa Griffin is even larger, see below). The lions represent the 12 tribes of Israel, two of them have a triangle on the forehead, indicating the two extant tribes Judá and Leví.
The Pisa Griffin, an Islamic large bronze sculpture that has been in Pisa (Italy) since the Middle Ages and is currently housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Museum) in Pisa. It is the largest medieval Islamic metal sculpture known (1.07 m tall, 87 cm length, 43 cm width), and was probably made in the 11th century in Al-Andalus (or Islamic Spain). As all griffins, it represents a mix of different creatures: it has the head of an eagle, ears of a horse, wattles of a rooster, wings, and the body of a lion (or other mammal), with toes. It was made of cast bronze (i.e. copper alloy) with the wings cast separately and held in place by rivets, and it is largely hollow inside. There is an engraved decoration, including an Arabic inscription around the beast’s chest and flanks saying: “Perfect benediction, complete well-being, perfect joy, eternal peace and perfect health, and happiness and good fortune (?) for the owner”.

Thus, both the sincerity of Muslims’ faith and their pilgrimage duty explain the stylistic similarity of Islamic monuments. The flat reliefs, without protruding forms, so appropriate for a wall exposed to the sun of the desert, are also applied to the interior of the mosques and even to the decoration of the mihrabs, furniture and decorative artifacts. The themes were also similar. Thus, in both North Africa and India, the arabesques* consisted in the complicated and profuse intersection of stylized stems and leaves; but the desert plants, the half-opened grape leaves, the pomegranates and the palms are interspersed with small tigers and lions, gazelles and birds all found in Eastern lands. These forms of Arabic decorative style are found in the friezes of Mesopotamian castles, and it is curious to note that, even in the most distant countries, the taste for plant and geometric traceries persists. The Muslim artist feels instinctive disgust at living forms in the state they are found in nature, and reaches the point that when he/she had at his/her disposal ancient friezes and Corinthian capitals with tender and juicy acanthus leaves, he/she cut them in hard and short lines, he/she carved them again, opening holes with the trepan that reduced to a skeleton the flexible mass of fresh leaves. The Roman and Greek capitals thus rectified abound in mosques of North Africa and Cordoba; instead, the simple Visigothic capitals were almost never deformed by Muslim artists who placed them on top of columns satisfied by their barbaric geometric stylizations.

Left: A battle scene from the Baysonghori Shahnameh (Book of Kings) (museum of Golestan Palace, Iran) made in 1430 for Prince Bayasanghor (1399-1433), the grandson of the legendary Timur. The armies are: those of Iran led by Key-Khosrow (left), and those of Turan, under the command of Afrasiyab (right). Right: Detail of the Banquet of the Ten First Kings of the Nasrid Dynasty (XV century), a painting on leather in the Kings Room of the Alhambra of Granada (Spain). These paintings are on three ellipse-shaped wooden domes. The fragment depicted here comes from the middle painting and represents the first ten kings of the Nasrid dynasty. The lateral vaults depict scenes of chivalry (especially hunting scenes) and romantic scenes. Despite this, they are clearly Christian paintings, which is apparent because of the clumsier and less precise representations of Muslim scenes in comparison with the Spanish scenes.

The predilection for the purely geometric, abstract and abbreviated is more pronounced in the Muslims of the Sunni sect which is based strictly on the Koran. But almost half of the Muslims belong to the Shiite sect, which considers Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, superior to the Prophet himself, since he was an emanation of the divine wisdom. Ali was an imam*, whose infinite virtue led him not to manifest his character and not to claim recognition for his status. Thus, while the Sunni Muslims have as definitive what the Koran says, the Shiites remain in expectation for the appearance of new Imams descended from Ali, whom in turn will make successive revelations. This predisposes them to accept representations of living beings in their works of decorative art. From this point of view, Islam is divided by the Euphrates, since most of the Muslims of Persia and India are Shiites, while the Sunnis predominate in Syria, North Africa and Spain.

Left: The richly decorated frontispiece of a Mamluk Koran manuscript from 1490. Right: Bahram Gur and Courtiers Entertained by Barbad the Musician, a page from a Manuscript of the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (Brooklyn Museum, New York).

This division is vital to understand Muslim sculpture and painting. The Islamic works of free standing sculpture are very scarce among the Sunni orthodox Muslims. It is exceptional to find Arabic three dimensional sculptures in the West, because there the Muslims respected the Koranic prohibition. Abd-ar-Rahman III, by exception, placed in Medina Azahara the statue of his favorite wife, and it is known that for the decoration of the fountains of Córdoba he ordered twelve red-gold animals. Another rare example of Western Islamic sculpture are the lions from the fountain of the courtyard of the Alhambra and the Pissa Griffin, the largest medieval Islamic metal sculpture known, now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Pisa.

There are also references in the literature regarding some decorative paintings with portraits and figures among the Sunni Muslims. An often quoted example are the paintings on leather of the room of the Kings, in the Alhambra, which represent scenes of hunting and tournament. Today these paintings are attributed, without hesitation, to Italian artists who arrived in Granada in the 15th century; they only prove a deviation of styles towards the living and the figurative, which is almost apostasy for the Muslim faith.

Left: Bizhan receives an invitation through Manizheh’s nurse, other folio from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Right: The Court of Gayumars a folio from the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp or Houghton Shahnameh, probably the most fully illustrated manuscript of the original text ever produced. It had 759 pages, 258 of them with a miniature. The page size is about 48 x 32 cm. In the 1970’s it was broken up and pages are now in a number of different collections.

On the other hand exist innumerable manuscripts with miniatures which can give us an idea of ​​what painting was among Muslims of the Shiite confession. The holy book, the Koran, has only a beautiful frontispiece with an interlaced medallion. But books of historical character and the Iranian epics, especially the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi or Book of Kings, were illustrated with abundant explanatory vignettes. The Shahnameh is the world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet (the Persian poet Ferdowsi) between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran. The epic tells the mythical (and to some extent the historical) past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

In Persia and India the decorators of manuscripts did wonders: nothing like their miniatures can make us better understand the refined atmosphere of the sultans’ courts, who were more proud of their musicians, poets and philosophers than of their statesmen and generals. Some of them represented the prince surrounded by his courtiers in a pleasant colloquy; others reproduced scenes of war and hunting; others were simply drawn portraits.

In Persia it is necessary to indicate two main schools of miniatures: the one of Herāt and the one of Eṣfahān. The first was founded in the late fifteenth century by the great artist Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, whose style was copied for generations and is characterized by a realism full of charm, by the brilliance of colors and the hectic movement of the scenes. The most outstanding personality of the school of Eṣfahān was Reza Abbasi who during the first quarter of the 17th century made his compositions famous by representing great figures in which a keen observation of nature and daily reality is appreciated. In Muslim India the princes, beginning with Akbar, developed the collection of great illustrations in which a distant reminiscent of the ancient paintings of Ajanta is perceived. In the Shah Jahan period the interest for the pictorial perfection of the individualized portrait was accentuated.

Left: A Youth reading, ca. 1625–1626 by Reza Abbasi the leading Persian miniaturist of the Esfahān School and who is considered the last great master of the Persian miniature, best known for his single miniatures for muraqqa* or albums, especially portraying single figures of beautiful youths (Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran, Iran). Right: Portrait of Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne, circa 1635.
The Battleground of Timur and the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, (ca. 1450-1535) (Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran), a work by Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād the Persian master painter head of the royal school of Herāt.


Arabesque: (from the French derived from the Italian word Arabesco meaning Arabic style). A form of artistic decoration consisting of surface decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils or plain lines, often combined with other elements. Another definition is “Foliate ornament, used in the Islamic world, typically using leaves, derived from stylised half-palmettes, which were combined with spiralling stems”. It usually consists of a single design which can be ’tiled’ or seamlessly repeated as many times as desired. Within the very wide range of Eurasian decorative art that includes motifs matching this basic definition, the term “arabesque” is used consistently as a technical term by art historians to describe only elements of the decoration found in two phases: Islamic art from about the 9th century onwards, and European decorative art from the Renaissance onwards. Interlace and scroll decoration are terms used for most other types of similar patterns.

Imam: An Islamic leadership position. It is most commonly used as the title of a worship leader of a mosque and Muslim community among Sunni Muslims. In this context, imams may lead Islamic worship services, serve as community leaders, and provide religious guidance.


Muraqqa: (Persian for “that which has been patched together”)An album in book form containing Islamic miniature paintings and specimens of Islamic calligraphy, normally from several different sources, and perhaps other matter. The album was popular among collectors in the Islamic world, and by the later 16th century became the predominant format for miniature painting in the Persian Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman empires. The album largely replaced the full-scale illustrated manuscript of classics of Persian poetry, which had been the typical vehicle for the finest miniature painters up to that time. The earliest muraqqa were of pages of calligraphy only; it was at the Timurid court in Herat in the early 15th century that the form became important for miniature painting.