Dictionary of Art and Artists

Artistic Cultures of Asia and the Americas


The Art of Asia


The regional variations of Islamic art had a powerful impact on the
Old World, while from India to China, ancient civilizations and new
states continued to develop interesting styles of art. The golden age in
fapan was renowned for its creative techniques and beautiful objects,
which were to have a great influence on European art.

In the 12th century, 500 years after Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina, the creed of Islam extended its influence from the western region of the Mediterranean to the archipelagos of Indonesia. Muslim art, therefore, could no longer be thought of as a regional culture, but instead could justifiably be regarded as universal.

Islamic Art

An important characteristic of Muslim history was the frequent invasions by various tribes from the East and, in particular, from central Asia. In the 11th century, seminomadic tribes of Turkish origin, who had converted to Islam (but nevertheless retained much of their original culture) invaded first Persia and then Anatolia. There were also incursions into Indian territories, but the outcome there was variable, due to the diverse cultures (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) that were already present. In this way, very different elements - some Chinese, others from central and southwest Asia - were blended with ancient traditions. The Islamic world was always able to assimilate artistic ideas, even from distant sources, and unify them. From Spain to central Asia and India, fundamental Muslim features were modified by strong, regional currents. An important feature of Islamic society was the mobility of its populations. One of the duties of a Muslim was to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, as a consequence, the arts were nourished not only by the influences arising from foreign invasion but also by those resulting from internal migration.

Dome of the Mausoleum of Sultan Kayt Bey, Cairo, 1472-74.
This is a splendid example of the so-called "florid" dome,
from one of the oldest and most important centres of Islamic art in the Mediterranean.

Detail from the Seljuk Friday mosque at Isfahan.
The architectural complexity of the muqarnas is highlighted
by the geometric pattern of the decoration.


Candlestick from Afghanistan, late 12th century. Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.


Metalworking is one of the many decorative arts that has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. The transformation of an inert metal into a glittering and precious object was a valued process. Islamic metal craftsmen, heirs to the tradition set by the Sassanid and Byzantine civilizations, among others, perpetuated and then reinterpreted these skills. The austere life led by the prophet Muhammad inhibited the use of precious materials by artists, and the amount of gold and silver inlaid in the bronze, brass, and copper articles was always extremely small. It was in order to avoid the accusation of violating Koranic precepts that the technique of damascening (ornamenting by etching or inlaying) was developed. The astonishing virtuosity of the artists is evident in articles produced by the cultivated 13th-century Mosul school, the more austere Khorasan school, 14th- and 15th-century Iranian workshops such as the Shiraz, and the Mameluke metalworking shops of Syria and Egypt. The most common objects were large bowls, jugs, pitchers, and goblets, of which fine specimens still exist in various museums around the world. In a class apart are the small Veneto-Saracenic metal objects produced in Damascus and Cairo for the Western market. They are distinguished by the Latin and Arabic signatures of the artists and the coats of arms of the Venetian nobility.


Of all Muslim cities, Cairo was the most remarkable for its urban architecture. Although few monuments survive as examples of its development in the Fatimid (ad969-1171) and Ayyubid (1171-1250) periods, the Mameluke age (1250-1517) saw an unprecedented surge of activity that is still visible today. Many huge buildings, both secular and religious, attest to the role that architecture, in the form of mosques, medersas or Koranic schools, and mausoleums -and sometimes all three under the same roof -played in public life. The glory of the sultans was measured in terms of the great architectural achievements. These massive constructions were built in stone and almost all surmounted by domes, which evolved in form from the primitive ribbed and spiralled Aytimish cupola (1383) to the "florid" cupola, typified by the mausoleum of Sultan Kayt Bey. The outer northern wall of the medersa mosque of Sultan Hasan (1356-61) is strikingly modern and is one of the towering masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Such works played a key part in expressing the importance of Cairo in the Near East during the period of Mameluke rule.

Syria and Egypt

Syria and Egypt were governed by the Ayyubid (1171-1250) and Mameluke (1250-1517) dynasties between the 12th and early 16th century. The monuments of Damascus, the extraordinary citadels of Aleppo, and the entire urban centre of Cairo (including its huge cemeteries) all date from these periods. The architecture was highly original, both in terms of military fortifications (in Syria, these were strongly affected by the architecture of the Christian Crusaders) and of mosques, palaces, baths, and caravanserais (inns where caravans stayed overnight). Black and white stone had already been widely used for portals, while muqarnas (honeycombed niches) were employed not only in traditional corners, but also in portals and even in the outer balustrades of balconies in minarets.
The decorative arts of Syria and Egypt were equally impressive. Metalwares were often embellished with gold and silver inlays. In the Mameluke age, ornamentation featured inscriptions, applied with long strokes in flowing cursive script, alternated with heraldic motifs. The art of blown and enamelled glass - popular in Syria - demonstrated supreme skill and invention. Equally skilled work was produced in textiles, and the fabulous silk materials made in the imperial factories of Damascus, Cairo, and other places in the Near East supplied a growing European market for light silks, damasks, and muslins.

Knotted Persian rug from Herat, late 16th century.
Museo Poldi Pezzoll, Milan.



The most famous of all Oriental arts linked with the Islamic tradition is undoubtedly that of knotted rug- and carpet-making. This activity is very ancient, as demonstrated by biblical references, with the oldest surviving antique specimen dating from the fifth century BC. Handmade rugs initially replaced the reed matting and animal hides of nomadic tents and gradually became more elaborate. Woven on looms in Turkey, the Caucasus, Persia, central Asia, and India, there were also workshops in Spain, North Africa, and Egypt. The early carpets were generally knotted in wool, and only a few luxury specimens were made of silk. Craftsmen used natural animal or vegetable dyes right up until the end of the 19th century The type of knot (Turkish or Persian) involved not only the use of a particular technique but also a special iconography. Turkish rugs and carpets (and likewise those of the Caucasus and central Asia) have predominantly geometrical decorative designs and are often based on the repetition of a specific motif, known as the gul, which can vary in shape and size. Colours -especially in examples of nomadic manufacture - are limited in number. Persian carpets (as in the most famous examples produced by Safavid workshops in the late 16th and 17th centuries' are notable for their floral and naturalistic patterns (including hunting subjects), numerous colours, and a detailed method that was also imitated in India. These carpets were admired by traveller such as Marco Polo and by Renaissance artists such as Ghirlandaio, Holbein, Lotto, Crivelli, Bellini, and Tintoretto.


Detail of the ai-'Attarin medersa, Fez, Morocco, 1325.
Fez was founded in 1275 as the capital of the Merinids, who centred religious instruction around the institution of the medersa.

The Timurids

Incursions from the East continued over the centuries. The Mongols of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his descendants invaded China and overran much of the Near East, creating an empire that extended as far as Europe. Although these vanquished peoples were rapidly converted to Islam, particular Chinese traits remained in the general Muslim artistic heritage - the lotus design, for example. Some towns were burned and sacked, never to recover, but the subsequent period of peace, described as the pax mongolica, witnessed intense commercial activity. Timur (1336-1405), also known as Tamerlane, set his seal on the history of the Near East at about the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th century. He conquered vast territories and challenged the might of the growing Ottoman power in Anatolia, where he was finally defeated. The mosques and other buildings of Samarkand. Tamerlane's capital, are clad in splendid multicoloured tiles - Persian in taste and style - and bear lofty double domes (a technique already employed by the Ilkhan dynasty). They provide shining examples of the opulence and ostentation of the Timurid court. The heirs of Tamerlane -Ulugh Beg, Shah Rukh, and Baysunghur - were renowned for being generous patrons and promoters of literature. The 15th century saw the production of many precious manuscripts, in particular those in which the arts of writing, illustration, and bookbinding were combined to convey an overall effect of great refinement and originality.


Medersa in Registan Square Samarkand Timund era.
This city in east Uzbekistan was Tamerlane s capital in the 14th century.

Ceramic plate from Iznik, 16th century.
Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait.


During the Ottoman era, the ancient Byzantine city of Nicaea in Asia Minor, previously the seat of two church councils (in AD325 and AD787), became an important centre of ceramic production. The range of wares included both decorative ceramics and wall tiles. Apart from the abundance of local material — Nicaea enjoyed excellent supplies of clay, water, and wood — there were two other relevant factors: the entrepreneurial approach of Armenian craftsmen and the decision to imitate Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. This was particularly popular at court after the arrival in the early 16th century of many specimens for the exclusive use of the sultan. The imitation of Chinese styles was soon superseded, however, and new-colours such as turquoise, sage green, and purple were introduced. However, the finest and most elegant pieces were those decorated with the pigment known as sealing-wax red, or "Armenian bole". Known in the 19th century as Rhodes-style red pottery (as it was thought to have been produced on the island of Rhodes), such wares were already being imitated in Italy in 1600. Enormous quantities of tiles were produced at Iznik on an industrial scale but with exquisitely precise craftsmanship. They were used as ornamentation for the mosques in Istanbul, which were commissioned by the great sultans and designed by the celebrated architect Sinan. The most wonderful example of this decoration, comprising dozens of different types of tile, can be seen in the mosque of Rustem Pasha (c.1560).

Ceramic tile from the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque,
Istanbul, 1571.



The Western Mediterranean

Western Islamic art and architecture in Morocco and Spain presents a fairly uniform pattern, as seen principally in the productions of the Merinid dynasty - notably the medersas, or theological schools, of al-'Attarin (1323-25) and Bu 'Inaniyya (1348-59) at Fez in Morocco -and those of the Nasrids in Spain, also known as the Moors. The glory of the latter dynasty (wiped out in 1492 by the definitive Christian conquest) is best exemplified by the astonishing architecture of the Alhambra in Granada. This fortified palace is laid out in distinct large areas - the public section with the Court of Myrtles; the Tower of Comares, which contains the Throne Room; and the private section, around the Court of the Lions. The courtyard is crossed by two small channels that divide the area according to the Koranic model of Paradise. Facing it are large rooms, which through the use of stucco and the arabesque display a wholly successful integration of architectural detail and fine decoration, particularly in the muqarnas of the domes. This art form had a great impact on European architecture and ornamentation. Initially practised in Spain by the mudejar artists (Muslims working on Christian commission), it was reintroduced in the 19th century as part of the neo-Moorish style. In the field of the decorative arts, of particular note are the lustre pottery ware of Paterna, Mislata, and Manises, the carpets known as the "carpets of the admirals" that featured heraldic motifs, and the extraordinary textiles with decorated floral and geometrical patterns that were manufactured during the Nasrid period in Granada, Alicante, and Seville. Western art was also influenced by Islam in its workings of wood, ivory, gems, and glass.



Ottoman silk cloth, 17th century.
Museo del Bargello, Florence.

Ottoman Art

In the early 14th century, a small local dynasty of central Asian stock under the leadership of Osman ("Othman" in Arabic), gradually took control of the Near East. These were the Osmanli or Ottoman Turks, who first conquered the Balkans and then, in 1453, under Mohammed II (1432-81) defeated the Byzantines and occupied Constantinople. Thanks to a succession of great sultans, in particular Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), the Ottoman empire extended its territories, dominating the whole of North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. In the 16th century, it spread westward into Europe as far as Vienna. Although the empire was made up of many different races and had a number of principal cities, it was nevertheless centrally organized, and society was structured in a pyramidal fashion with the sultan at its summit. Ottoman architecture owes most of its splendour to its greatest architect, Sinan Koca Pasha (c. 1489-1580). His designs were influenced by the Byzantine style of the Balkans and were based on a central dome, as at Shehzade (1543-48), Suleimaniyeh (1550-57) in Istanbul, and Selimiyeh (1569-75) at Edirne, with exedrae (recesses at the end of rooms), half-domes, and secondary domes. This wholly rational architectural model was easily recognized and exported all over the Ottoman-dominated world, from Yemen to Cairo, from Damascus to Budapest, and from Sofia to Tripoli. The centralized empire encouraged the gathering of court artists, who formed naqqashkane - art workshops specializing in making decorative motifs that were then applied to various media: glass, metals, ceramics (the pottery of Isnik is celebrated), and textiles that rivalled the impressive wares of Venice.

View of the mosque of Imam at Isfahan, a great monument of the Safavid era.




Few examples of Islamic painting survive, whether on panel, canvas, or in the form of a fresco. Although the Koran does not explicitly prohibit naturalistic representations of humans, animals, and plants, tradition has always excluded such artistic forms in public-places. In Muslim art, therefore, painting is represented by the art of the miniature. These works act as the illustrations to particular texts and, as such, constitute an integral part of the book in its entirety. The style of the miniatures depended on the subject of the book - science, an epic, romance, or history. For example, scientific books were characterized by a very distinctive and traditional style. Texts were often translated from the Greek for subjects such as astronomy (for example the Forms of the Fixed Stars of f 009), astrology, medicine, herbals, and animals.

Miniature from the Shah-Nama ("Book of Kings") by Firdausi,
probably from Tabriz, c 1500.
British Museum, London.

Miniature by Bihzad illustrating the construction of a palace, Herat, 1494.
British Library London.

The most celebrated literary epics were Persian, written by the poets Firdausi (the famous Shah-Nama, or "Book of Kings") and Xizami, and were illustrated from the f 4th century onwards. Renowned painters included Ahmad Musa and his pupil Shams-al-Din (late 14th century) and Riza-i Abbasi (late 16th century). An entirely separate genre, highly popular in the Ottoman empire, was that dealing with the genealogy of sultans. The Indian schools of miniature painting (with Hindu influence), on the other hand, had their own individual styles.


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