Interiors: Movement by Design
Issue 100 January 2013
The breathtaking splendour of Muslim art and design throughout history, is not matched by our modern day works. Sarah Joseph calls for a design movement that draws on Divine sources of inspiration not merely a reproduction and recalibration of the past.
Look across the Muslim world and you will witness some of the most amazing architectural structures, feats of engineering, and breathtakingly beautiful buildings built at the height of Islamic civilisation. Exquisitely crafted buildings signalled the greatness, the breadth, the depth, and the beauty of a faith that evolved several empires across multiple territories over many centuries.
Commonalities echoed throughout the varied designs.
Calligraphy signalled the Muslim connection to the Word of God. Every letter was an act of worship, as well as an artistic expression. A variety of calligraphy styles evolved centuries before the Apple Mac brought us different fonts. Calligraphy adorned buildings, carved into stone, and painted on friezes. Masshafs were illuminated. Verses of the Qur’an embellished ceramics, lamps, mihrabs, stained glass windows, bowls. The sacred and the profane are not separated, and thus everyday items were intricately embellished with the word of God, a constant reminder of the closeness of the relationship between the Divine and the creation. So beautiful was the script, and so powerful the Islamic position, that Arabic calligraphy was emulated in what is known as Arabesque; painted into works of late Gothic and early Renaissance painters such as Gentile da Fabriano, Giovanni Toscani or Friar Angelico. Arabesque, in gold, beautified the halos of the Holy Family, as well as adorning their silk cloths. Such adornment showed power and status, in much the same way as brand logos do in the modern age.
The intricate mosaic of the Muslim world was like no other. The Romans had perfected exquisite mosaics in their domestic architecture and in their places of worship. Tiny coloured stones—tesserae—captured scenes of Roman history and their everyday life. The rich and powerful were able to commission bespoke pieces, and their floors were decorated with mosaic, much of which survives to this day. Yet, mosaic in the Muslim world was a way to adorn and beautify that manifested a theological understanding. God cannot be drawn. The artist’s eye and hand cannot craft the Divine, indeed even the mind cannot conceive of the fullness of the Creator. Mosaic was a metaphor. The mosaic resists form, for the human mind cannot form God. The patterns have no beginning and no end, God has no beginning and no end. The patterns are designed, demonstrating the design of creation; and the mosaic are meticulously ordered, reflecting the order of the universe. Indeed, so mathematically precise were the mosaics of the Muslim world that modern scientists are beginning to realise that the complex ‘girih’ designs are based on a mathematical understanding that was not present in Western mathematics until the early 1970s, when English mathematician Roger Penrose introduced his famous “Penrose” tiling system. The intricacy of the mosaic were designed with such precision, and with near perfect symmetry, that Peter J. Lu of Harvard university says that the quasi-crystalline patterns post 1200 C.E. “were reconceived as tessellations of a special set of equilateral polygons (girih tiles) decorated with lines. These tiles enabled the creation of increasingly complex periodic girih patterns, and by the 15th century the tessellation approach was combined with self-similar transformations to construct nearly perfect quasi-crystalline Penrose patterns, five centuries before their discovery in the West.” In addition to their mathematical precision, the use of glass, stone and ceramic tiles opened up colours that were not available to the Romans, and as such the mosques of the Muslim world—Isfahan, Istanbul, the Great Mosque of Damascus, the mihrab of Cordoba, all feature some of the most renowned mosaic in the world.
Motif was yet another feature of Muslim architecture and design. Floral designs reflected both a desire not to draw life forms, as well as a desire to capture the beauty of the natural world. The leaf and flower designs ranged from single motifs to extended patterns, from natural depictions to complicated and heavily stylised designs. Artists drew not only of different plant forms from creation for their designs, but they were also influenced by their own history and geography. At first, as the empire spread, Islamic art inherited the motifs from other artistic traditions including the Byzantine Empire, Coptic Egypt, the Sassanian Empire of Iran, and art from Rome. Over time, the Muslim artists developed distinct styles of their own, and decorated objects and buildings with what seemed an endless and increasingly complex array of floral motifs. It was this developed and stylised motif design that was instrumental in the design work of 19th century European designers such as William Morris, founder of the arts and craft movement. His admiration for Islamic art led not only to his motif designs, but also to his passion that art and craft are inextricable linked. The Islamic world had never made a distinction between the two. Everyday objects and the vast monuments were all created and used within a paradigm of surrendering to the Divine, and an awareness that such surrender should be manifest in every aspect of life. Morris’ passion for art and craft was instrumental to the Bauhaus Movement. It was Islam’s passion that art should meet the needs of society, with no distinction between form and function, which shaped the history of Islamic art, as well as later modern movements.
One of William Morris’ greatest influences was the Ardabil Carpet, the world’s oldest dated carpet and one of the largest, most beautiful and historically important in the world. Ardabil, in north-west Iran, is home to the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili who died in 1334 CE. When the shrine was enlarged in the late 1530s, two carpets were made. They remained there until the late 1800s but it is thought they were sold to pay for repairs to the shrine when it was damaged by an earthquake. One carpet was used to repair the other, leaving one large carpet and one fragment. The large carpet eventually came to the knowledge of Morris, who recommended it be purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum, declaring the carpet to be “of singular perfection … logically and consistently beautiful.” Carpets such as those of Ardabil were widely acknowledged as one of the great strengths of the Islamic world. Indeed, such carpets feature, like Arabesque, in Renaissance paintings such as The Virgin Mary by Andrea Mantegna.