Medieval Islamic Art History - Islamic Empire
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Early Islamic art

Mosaic from the Great Mosque in Damascus
(about 710 AD)

April 2017 - As soon as the Islamic Empire formed, under the Umayyad dynasty, artists began exploring the new ideas of Islam and what they meant for art. The first big difference between Roman art and Islamic art was that the followers of Islam, like the Jews, took seriously the commandment that you should not make graven images. Although Umayyad mosaics like the elaborate mosaics on the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem and on the Great Mosque in Damascus show plants and buildings, they do not show people or animals.

fancy carved wood
Abbasid wooden carving (800s AD)

By the Abbasid period, even plants and buildings were frowned on. Most of the art was geometric designs. A lot of these designs seem to be from fabric patterns. Central Asian knotted carpets, sold on the Silk Road, were very expensive and fashionable, and used abstract patterns. So Islamic artists used those same familiar patterns only in stone or tile. They also often used calligraphy (beautiful writing) of verses from the Quran to decorate buildings, plates, and vases. When Islamic artists began to buy paper from the Silk Road traders in the 700s AD, that let them do a lot more painting, because paper was so much cheaper than papyrus or parchment.

Iskander (Alexander the Great),
Persian miniature from Herat, 1400s AD

In this period, also, the focus of the Islamic Empire shifted from Damascus and the old Roman territory east to Baghdad and the old Sassanian territory. So the art also became more Iranian and Central Asian and less Roman.

Mamluk vase
Mamluk vase

The Silk Road also exposed Islamic artists to a lot of Chinese art, especially fine porcelain. Many Chinese motifs and imitations of Chinese techniques started to show up in Iranian painting and vases.

By about 1000 AD, the Islamic empire was breaking up into smaller states, and each state developed its own art style. There are individual styles for Spain, the Maghreb, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and northern India.

In some of these places, the iconoclastic rules against using pictures of things or people were relaxed as time went on. In Iran and India, painters made beautiful little miniature paintings of people at court, and of famous people from history.

Learn by doing: making paper
T'ang Dynasty Chinese art

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic art:

Islamic pottery
More about the Islamic Empire home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 29 April, 2017