ISLAMIC ART-Decorative Arts

The Pisa Griffin (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Pisa; height 107 cm; length 87 cm; width 43 cm), here exhibited in the cathedral’s chapter house .

Muslim artists produced works of decorative art with extraordinary beauty perhaps achieving superior results to those produced in Western Europe. The restriction or prohibition of representing figurative subjects is an impediment for Islamic artists, of which they take extraordinary advantage thanks to their never ending fantasy. The Islamic peoples who learned, in the first place from Sassanid artists of Persia and Mesopotamia, reproduced for example the two most frequent themes of Eastern art namely: the tree of life (flanked by two animals) and the griffin flying to Paradise. In Sassanid Persia, the griffin becomes the sigmurd, a monster imagined by the followers of Zoroaster, which is interpreted as a universal synthesis of the four elements: the sigmurd throws fire through its mouth, is provided with scales to enter the water, has wings to fly in the air and legs to run on the earth.

Islamic artists have produced a famous bronze cauldron carved in the shape of a griffin, which is one of the most precious jewels of the treasure of the Campo Santo in Pisa: it happens to be an Egyptian work from the tenth and eleventh centuries, and it is said that it was brought to Europe by Amaury, a Frankish king from Jerusalem. These cauldrons, fountainheads or fountain spouts made in the form of a bird or quadruped with chiseled embellishments or filled with enamel, are relatively numerous: they date mostly from the tenth to the twelfth centuries and some are of Hispanic-Arabic origin, like the famous Monzón lion today housed in the Louvre. Other cauldrons are in the form of fawn or horse and come from Medina Azahara.

Top Left: Fountainhead from Medina Azahara. Top Middle: Gilt bronze fountainhead from the Spanish Umayyad Period, late 10th-early 11th centuries. Top Right: Persian incense-burner, 11th-12th centuries (Louvre Museum). Bottom Left: The Monzón lion, a fountain spout found at Monzón de Campos (Palencia, Spain), hence its name; it is inscribed with a series of good wishes: Baraka kamila/Na’ima shamila (perfect blessing, absolute happiness), (cast bronze and engraved decoration, 12th-13th centuries, Louvre Museum). Bottom Middle:  A brass ewer, possibly from Fatimid Egypt or Persia, ca. 10th-11th centuries. Bottom Right: An 11th century Fatimid rock crystal ewer, this pitcher was hand-carved from a single block of flawless rock crystal by artisans during the Islamic Fatimid period, the mounts though, are by Jean-Valentin Morel from Sèvres, France.

An important chapter in the decorative Muslim art are the artifacts made in brass from the eleventh century and found in several dispersed locations: Mossul, Damascus, Cairo, Herat and several Persian towns. They have a great stylistic unity despite their differences due to the evolution of styles. Many of these vessels, aquamaniles or candlesticks with chiseled work are encrusted with silver; the adornment of almost all these works consists, besides calligraphic signs, in medallions with refined plant or figurative subjects.

Other artistic expression preferred by Islam were the carving of rock crystal, which flourished in Egypt between the 10th and the 1st half of the 12th centuries under the Fatimid dynasty, and glass with enamel and gilded polychrome decoration whose first workshops were based in Damascus and other Syrian towns beginning in the twelfth century, but whose most ostentatious works (lamps for mosques with beautiful inscriptions in nasjíes characters) were not only manufactured in Syria, but also in Cairo during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the Mamluk sultans.

Some minbars*, or pulpits for the reading of the Koran, are precious works of carving, others stand out for their meritorious inlaid traceries.

Top Left: A rock crystal (more exactly clear quartz) ewer from Egypt, ca. 1000-1050 AD. Top Middle: Rock crystal ewer from Fatimid Egypt from late 10th–11th centuries, the mounts are by Jean-Valentin Morel from Sèvres, France (The Keir Collection of Islamic Art, Dallas Museum of Art). Top Right: A mosque’s lamp from the 14th century, either coming from Egypt or Syria (Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal). Bottom Left: A mosque’s lamp, ca. 1360 AD. made in Egypt (Freer Sackler Museums, Washington, DC.). Bottom Middle: A cylindrical lamp from either Egypt or Syria, from the Mamluk period, ca. middle of 14th century. Bottom Right: The minbar at Al-Aqsa mosque (Old City of Jerusalem).

The Koranic devotion did not stimulate the creation of decorative works like the Christian liturgy did. Mosques don’t have altars, nor does the cult oblige to produce the countless ritual objects that the Latin and Byzantine churches need. The mihrab, an indispensable element in all the mosques and their most decorated part, is simply an archway or niche flanked by small columns to guide the congregation to direct their prayers towards the direction of Mecca. By exception, the mihrab of the Mosque of Cordoba is a small cubicle without windows.

Muslim artists preferred ivory to wood. The ivory Hispano-Arabic chests covered in flat reliefs are magnificent, and in many cathedrals of the Middle Ages served to keep relics. The largest of these Arabic ivory boxes is that of the cathedral of Pamplona (the Pamplona casket). This box is rectangular and completely decorated with historiated reliefs. The legend that decorates its four sides implores the blessing of God, happiness and long life for Almanzor, and in addition carries the name of the artist who directed the work, a eunuch named Nomeir-ben-Mohamed, who seems to be the head of the Caliphal workshop in Córdoba. Several names, engraved on each medallion, may be those of the artists who executed the different parts of the reliefs. Another very similar Arab coffer is kept in the cathedral of Braga, in Portugal. The National Archaeological Museum of Madrid has an Arab chest from Palencia, less historiated than the Pamplona’s, ​​although older and with a delightfully stylized plant ornamentation. In those almost geometric stems carved in ivory, the tree of life is flanked by pairs of gazelles, deer or quail.

Top Left: The Pamplona casket from the Spanish Caliphal period, made in ivory, perhaps at the Medina Azahara workshop of Córdoba (Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain). Top Right: Arqueta de Palencia, ca. 1050 AD., it was carved in the ivory workshop of Cuenca by Abderraman ben Zeiyan and is considered one of the masterpieces of that workshop (Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid).  Bottom Left:  The Pyxis of Al-Mughira, 968 AD., an ivory piece from the Spanish Umayyad Period, it comes from one of the ivory workshops of Medina Azahara in Córdoba, its entire surface is intricately and expertly carved with different decorative motifs, including the four main medallions around its diameter (Louvre Museum). Bottom Middle: Ivory pyxis, ca. 968 AD. (Hispanic Society of America, New York). Bottom Right: Ivory pyxis from Córdoba (Spain), ca. 10th Century AD. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Some Arabic ivory “boxes” are cylindrical with rounded lids. The oldest, from the tenth century, were made in Córdoba, like the one kept in the Louvre Museum (known as the Pyxis* of al-Mughira), filled with figurative scenes, and the one housed in the Hispanic Society of New York with a refined stylized plant decoration and the original ironwork. After the dissolution of the caliphate, the art of ivory carving was preserved in Cuenca; there was a family that for several generations dedicated to carving boxes thus continuing the tradition of the Cordoban style. Also Syria and Egypt, as well as Sicily under the Norman dynasty, had notable ivory workshops between the 12th and 14th centuries.


Minbar: (A derivative of the Arabic root n-b-r “to raise, elevate”). A pulpit in the mosque where the imam (prayer leader) stands to deliver sermons. The minbar is usually shaped like a small tower with a pointed roof and stairs leading up to it, and is located to the right of the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction of prayer towards Mecca. The minbar is also a symbol of authority.


Pyxis: (pl. pyxides). A shape of vessel from the classical world, usually in the form of a cylindrical box with a separate lid. Originally mostly used by women to hold cosmetics, trinkets or jewelry, surviving pyxides are mostly Greek in origin and made out of pottery, wood, metal, ivory, or other materials.