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Islamic Art in the
Middle Ages  

Randy H. Sooknanan & Ani Margaryan

ASAG Journal

April 12, 2020

Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Paintings

Manuscripts paintings were created across the breadth of the Islamic world and date from the 9th through the 19th century. In Islamic books, the primary vehicle for literary and artistic expression, the powers of poetry, prayer and visual form collide. Islamic medieval illuminated manuscript paintings are masterpieces of art that were produced from Persian, Ottoman, and Mughal traditions. These works often presented cultural themes in the form of timeless stories about courage, love, and virtue, all completed in brilliant and vibrant miniature compositions.

Islamic Art directly reflected the cultural values of the faith and showed the unique Muslim view of life and in all things spiritual. We can see it is characterized by recurrent motifs, using geometrical floral or vegetal designs in a repetition known as the arabesque. Arabesque style in Islamic art symbolizes God's transcendent, indivisible, and infinite nature. For Muslims, God is the center (Allah), and therefore, Islamic art developed a unique character of geometric, arabesque, floral, and calligraphic patterns that reflect on their aspects of balance.

These illuminated manuscripts were carefully hand-written books and meticulously illustrated with glorious painted decoration that generally included precious metals such as gold or silver. The pages were made to be durable and created from animal skin, commonly calf, sheep, or goat. These works were mostly produced between 1100 and 1600, with monasteries being recorded as their earliest creators. They are primarily dated from the later Medieval era to Renaissance times.

At the time, many rulers were connoisseurs of the arts, and they collected these types of books featuring paintings by famous artists. We can note that these manuscripts were thought of as financial investments as well, since they were donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, seen as status symbols, and presented as gifts between heads of state. The artist workshops that made such books were supported by rulers and their extended family members. The shops produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and the Quran text itself. The production of these elaborately illustrated books was mainly concentrated and worked on within royal workshops because the overall production of each book in its entirety was a rather expensive undertaking.

The text sections were first completed in traditional caligraphy and then the pages were passed along to the artists. The manuscript paintings were actually the work of several artists who were often commissioned to illustrate a particular scene in the story. Each scene was based on skill as some artists were known for their portraits and others for their battle scenes. Thus a single page might represent a massive collaborative effort, and even saw apprentices or junior artists called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before painting, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush, and some elements were based off or copied from preexisting sketches. To create pigments, the painter turned to natural sources, such as orpiment (for yellow) and malachite (for green). Indigo was a common source of blue, while azurite was used for a lighter blue. 

After the initial artwork and illustrations were finished, separate illuminators and gilders then added flourishes to the text and colored frames. They also created frontispieces and end pages using gold and silver. Finally, each sheet of the book was burnished with a hard stone or glass to increase the longevity of the work. The books were then sewn and bound, and the covers were joined to a spine.

The bindings were also decorated with geometric or vegetal patterns, until later in the 15th-century when the Persian development of a design using oval medallions, pendants, and corner pieces became popular. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. We can accredit this Islamic manuscript style and its influence on other cultures located in such places as Italy as well.  Particularly when we examine the use of Pseudo-Kufic or Kufesque, also sometimes known as Pseudo-Arabic style, which is a type of decoration used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Through the 16th-century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the 19-century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works.


Islamic Art in Illuminated Manuscript Paintings

The Court of Gayumars

Sultan Muhammad, the court of Gayumars, from the shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama, 1522-1525, ink, opaque watercolor, gold on paper, Agha Khan Museum, Canada

Although both artworks belong to the Islamic culture and are lavishly decorated with the implementation of gold and non-transparent watercolor vivid colors, they do not display the Islamic ban on depicting human figures as idolatry. Both of the artworks illustrate the Shahnama chapters. Thus both of them have secular content. However, the Bahram Gur and Karg compositions are more monumental and have more space for illustration; instead, the Gayumars court scene is more decorative, with minuscule details and a more secondary role of the calligraphic script. 


Another essential feature in terms of visual appearance both share is the interpretation of cross-cultural influences. King Bahram Gur wears a garment of fabric with floral patterns having the distinctive qualities of the European upper classes’ attires and garbs of the time. Besides, the background displays direct inspiration from Chinese scroll and ink paintings in terms of flatness, types of vegetation, and low hills. As for the Gayumars court scene, the facial features of some human figures, the decorative, ornamental rocks, and the type of clouds with swirling motifs showcase more poignant links with Chinese culture. 


It’s noteworthy that both European and Chinese styles of fabrics and representation of landscape and background reached the Islamic world through the extensive trade along the Silk Road, which largely facilitated economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between the East and the West.


The Fatimid Empire Shaping The World

—In the tenth to twelfth centuries, an area including present-day Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Egypt, and Syria came under the rule of the Fatimid dynasty (909–1171), an offshoot of a Shi'i sect from North Africa.

The Fatimids can be considered heralders of a new intellectual and religious philosophy. At the height of their power, they conquered Egypt, where they founded the city of Cairo. At first, they were just a small group of Ismaili Shi’i Muslims that would go on to establish a dynasty that would rapidly conquer North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Red Sea. They gave themselves their own name, Fatimid, meaning the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, from whom they claimed descent.

In History 
During their reign, it was a time of great social, economic, political, and intellectual upheaval in the Islamic world. Their dynasty was one that built the world’s oldest university, created 'one of its greatest libraries, and fostered a flowering of the arts and sciences. At its height in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Fatimids established one of the greatest civilizations in the world, influencing knowledge and culture throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Near East.' (1)

The Fatimids came to be around the first millennium CE.  They were a dynasty who reigned over a vast area of the southern Mediterranean–North Africa–all the way from Tunisia up until Egypt and parts of Syria. They reigned from 909 to 1171, CE for two and a half centuries.

In the end, the heart of their empire was in Egypt, their 'provinces at its peak included North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and the Hejaz, with the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.' (2) Control of Mecca and Medina was of immense value to this Muslim order, conferring great religious prestige and enabling their leaders, the caliphate, to exploit an annual pilgrimage to their advantage. While Egypt came to enjoy enormous prosperity primarily due to its intermediary role in the lucrative trade between the Mediterranean and India, Cairo soon rivaled the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.

The Fatimids were moved by ideology and dynastic ambition. They marked a new era in history and the religion 'of Islam because they posed serious intellectual and political challenges to the existing order.' (3) For them it was not enough merely to formulate an ideology, there was also the more practical business of implementing it. Which meant military conflicts to conquer other ruling Islamic factions and sending missionaries all through the world to spread their take on ideology, religion, philosophy, and political structure. 

The Fatimid "caliphate" was a regime imperial and revolutionary. The Fatimids were led by their “caliph” was not only an emperor but according to them, he was also an “imam”, the spiritual head of the Ismāʿīlīs sect of Islam ideology, making him the embodiment of God’s infallible guidance to mankind.
In their ventures abroad, after origins in Morocco, the Fatimids 'achieved many successes, the most notable being the conquest of Egypt itself. They suffered repeated setbacks, however, in Palestine and Syria where, in addition to local opponents, they also had to face major attacks from outside—by the Byzantines, the Turks, and then the European crusaders.' (4) Then in Syria, the great Fatimid advance to the East was delayed and halted. They experienced defeat from Saladin and his armies of a different sect of the Muslim religion. And so in Syria, this new power and opposition arose and in time eventually destroyed them. 

At times they were compelled by other problems such as wars on multiple frontiers, as well as trouble in the Mediterranean, and civil unrest at home or in their other provinces. They managed to reach some agreement with their religious interpretation rivals, but such arrangements were always temporary.
The end of the dynasty came in 1171. The last four caliphs were no more than a local Egyptian dynasty, without power, influence, or hope. In 1171, the last caliph died. Saladin, the nominal vizier, had become the real master of Egypt, and the Fāṭimid caliphate, already dead as a religious and political force, was formally abolished. (5)

In Art 
The opulence of the Fatimid court fueled a renaissance in the decorative arts, which made Cairo the most important cultural center in the Islamic world. Cairo, known as al-Fustat, became a major center for the production of pottery, glass, and metalwork, and rock-crystal, ivory, and wood carving; textile factories run by government officials created tiraz fabrics in the name of the caliph elsewhere in the Egyptian region, especially the Nile Delta. A novel, more refined style developed in pottery; bands with small animals and inscriptions now formed the major decoration in textiles; and rock-crystal carvers demonstrated great skill in works created for and treasured by the caliphs themselves. (6)

The artwork from this period exemplifies the creativity and ingenuity of Fatimid craftsmen. The technique of lusterware on ceramic, developed originally in Iraq, was revived in Egypt and Syria. Some lusterware pieces from this period are signed by their makers, an indication of the esteem in which the craftsmen were held. Wood carving and jewelry were executed with equal skill and inventiveness. Fatimid artists created new decorative motifs and made greater use of figural forms, both human and animal. Figures were stylized but lively, while traditional vegetal and geometric decorations maintained their abstract quality.
In architecture, the Fatimids followed Tulunid techniques and used similar materials, but also developed those of their own. In Cairo, 'the Fatimids founded great libraries and colleges where Da’is were trained to go out into the field, and to give further instruction to new converts.' (8) So it was 'in Cairo, their first congregational mosque was al-Azhar (“the splendid”) founded along with the city (969–73), which, together with its adjacent institution of higher learning (al-Azhar University), became the spiritual center for Isma’ili Shi’i.' (9) The Mosque of al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), 'an important example of Fatimid architecture and architectural decoration, played a critical role in Fatimid ceremonial and procession, which emphasized the religious and political role of the Fatimid caliph. Besides elaborate funerary monuments, other surviving Fatimid structures include the Mosque of al-Aqmar (1125) as well as the monumental gates for Cairo’s city walls commissioned by the powerful Fatimid emir and vizier Badr al-Jamali (r. 1073–94).' (10)


We can thank the Fatimids for bringing us the world's first modern styled University, along with leaving their mark on history and influences on art during the period in the region.



The Fatimid Empire

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