Islamic Art: Admiration and Artistic Reproduction


 Medieval Western Christian admiration for Islamic arts and aesthetics is symbolised by the long list of Islamic art objects found amongst Western collections. Hence amongst the earliest in the British Museum in London is an Irish bronze gilded cross dating from the 9thcentury with a glass paste in the centre which has the Arabic phrase: `Bismillah’ (in the name of God) in Kufic letters, and in the Musee de Cluny at Paris, there is a silk fabric which came from the tomb of Bishop Bernard de Laccare, which contains Arabic inscriptions: La Illaha Ill Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah (There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger).[1] The tapis Sarrasinois (Muslim carpet) became known in Louis IX’s France, and in 1277 there were trade privileges for it in Paris.[2] In the 14th century, woven Islamic hangings were prized in Arras, whilst silks were a precious part of church treasuries: a cope from Mamluk Egypt  inscribed in Arabic with the words `the learned Sultan' was in St Mary's Church, Danzig, early in the same century.[3] Equally the Medici collection of Islamic objects formed the nucleus of today's holdings of the Bargello Museum in Florence, and infiltration of Islamic motifs and objects into Western Europe was the result of the thriving late medieval trade with Mamluk Egypt and of the acquisitive instincts of the great Italian aristocratic families.[4] In the 18th century, another craze, Kufic coins (8th-early 11th century,) highly coveted items in north-eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages, now appeared in large numbers in many places around the shores of the Baltic Sea, in the Scandinavian countries, in Northern Germany, and in Russia.[5]These finds instigated serious research and a fairly large literature, such as George Jacob Kehr Leipzig monograph in 1724, considered the first scholarly book on Muslim numismatics[6] and also of Muslim archaeology in the widest sense.[7] By the end of the century catalogues of coin collections could be found in various parts of Europe: The Museum Cuficum Borgianum in Rome, the Museo Naniano in Padua, the Royal Library in Cottingen, and the Stockholm collection, which culminates in Fraehn’s systematic classification of Muslim coins.[8]


 Most of these Islamic objects and others were no mere objects for collection, but were, instead, best symbols of a civilisation that was once both sophisticated and superior. The appreciation of Islamic superior science has also been acknowledged by most, if not all, the contemporary learned amongst Western Christians. This civilisation, however much feared, was, thus, bound to give rise to admiration and envy, surely, and was also to be imitated to large measure, including in the artistic field. Lethaby insists that it was inevitable, that with the Muslim revival of learning, the acquaintance with Arabic numerals, trigonometry, astrology and philosophy, that the arts would have had their share of influence.[9]Ettinghausen also maintains that Eastern arts were so popular in the West because there was specifically no Muslim iconography or overt religious symbolism, which would have been offensive to the Christian mind.[10] `The innocent blandness of the various quadrupeds and birds,’ and arabesques, made the objects on which they were portrayed fully acceptable, even for the wrapping of a sacred relic or the carpeting of the altar steps.[11] The ready acceptance of Islamic objects and arts, obviously, was their obvious aesthetic quality, their harmony, opulence, and often the great richness of their colours.[12] But more importantly, a further asset, especially in the early periods, was the high degree of technical skill evident in the execution, far surpassing anything possible in the West.[13]


The admiration for Islamic arts and aesthetics was such that no exception was ever taken to the use of the Arabic script, which was widely used. It can be found on the halo of the Madonna, along the edges of the garments worn by saints, on cathedral doors, and on every other Possible surface.[14]It was noteworthy during the reign of Henry II when a new type ornamentation of Muslim and Arabic in character appears in the carvings of English architecture.[15] In the church of the Martorana built by George of Antioch for a convent of Greek  nuns in Palermo, the Arabic inscription runs round the base of the tiny dome, which actually translates a Greek hymn.[16] And although Arabic writing had a symbolic meaning in the Muslim world, and certain formulas contain religious invocations, the West apparently did not understand it as such.[17]


So endearing was the Islamic artistic influence, such an influence spilled beyond the post medieval period, thriving even at the height of the so-called Renaissance . Hence, the Reception of a Venetian Embassy in Damascus , attributed to the school of Bellini in the early 16th century, was by an artist who was familiar with the topography and monuments of Damascus.[18]Turkish costume and Muslim dress in general attracted immense interest, in 1587 an unknown European artist producing a volume of watercolour drawings of `Turkish, Moorish and Persian figures,’ which in turn provided the models copied by Rubens in his Costume Book in about 1600.[19] The Frenchmen Tavernier and Chardin were so moved by their experiences in the East that they publicly wore, on their return to Europe, the Eastern dress that they had acquired at first hand, and King Louis XIV's interest also encouraged the issue of popular engravings of Persian subjects, which included details of costume and architecture.[20] In England , under the later Stuarts, as under the Tudors, the brilliance of Islamic textiles and the captivating intricacy of the arabesque found a happy correspondence with existing tastes and also made notable contributions to them.[21]Rembrandt, too, was collecting Eastern objects, including miniatures, costumes and metalwork, some two decades, it seems, before copying, in the 1650s, original Mughal miniatures in his possession in Amsterdam.[22] Rembrandt also owned a collection of several dozen Mughal and Deccani paintings, which he copied.[23] Sweetman also notes how, subsequently, with the concourse of Muslim calligraphy line-along with many other influences, Celtic art-became part of `a highly charged decorative language,’ which led to Art Nouveau.[24]


    The appreciation of Islamic arts in Western culture finds expression in the many sources that sought to revive such a place even after the Islamic impact had dimmed. Hence Ettinghausen notes an early 19th century awakening of interest in the artistic monuments of Islam, especially in buildings, the first country to arouse such interest and instigate a sizeable literature being Spain.[25]James Cavanah Murphy pioneered this upsurge in Arabian Antiquities of Spain, a book which expresses enthusiasm for everything Islamic, including buildings, their decoration and inscriptions. Other writers also active in Spain in the first half of the 19th century include A. de Laborde, Girault de Prangey, J. Goury, and Owen Jones.[26]At about the same time, other writers in their discussion of Sicilian monuments included the Muslim remnants.[27]The outstanding figure in this group remains Frederich Sarre (1865-1945), who, from 1896 wrote about 200 books and articles, which cover the Islamic impact from Spain to India, and that includes architecture, painting, the minor arts, and also forerunners of Muslim art and its relationship with European and Far eastern arts and crafts.[28]Sarre even fixed the exact historical and geographical place of whole groups of objects and monuments.[29]Belonging to the same era is William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931), who became the first Principal of the Central School of Arts  and Crafts, London, who Sweetman notes, as an Arts and Crafts man concerned to propagate standards of example and method across the whole field of design `sensed to the full Europe's debt to the lands of `Caliphs and Emirs, Mahomet, Arabs , Turks and Saracens'.[30]


 Islamic art and aesthetics impacted so strongly, that early Islamic objects bearing them, from objects prized for decorative purposes, soon turned into imitated Western objects, thus providing the foundations for some of the most successful early Western Christian crafts and industries as the following shows.

[1] M. A. Marzouq: Influences of the Arabian art on the European Medieval arts: in The Islamic Review; March 1970; pp 23-9; p.27.

[2] John Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession; op cit; p.5.

[3] R.A. Jairazbhoy; Oriental influences in J Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession; p.5.

[4] C. Hillenbrand: The Crusades , Islamic Perspectives, op cit;.p.406.

[5] R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art and Archaelogy: in Near Eastern Culture  and Society; Ed by T. Cuyler Young: Princeton University Press, 1951: pp 17-47; at p.21.

[6] L.A. Mayer: The Rise and Progress of Moslem Archaeology (in Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1935.

[7] R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art; op cit; p.21.

[8] L. Mayer: The Rise; op cit, pp 6-7.

[9] W.R. Lethaby: Medieval Architecture; op cit; p. 63-4.

[10] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 14.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] A. de Longperier: 'L'Emploi des caracteres arabes dans l'ornamentation chez les peuples Chretiens de l’'Occident,' Revue archaelogique, ii (1845), pp. 696-706; in R. Ettinghausen: Muslim decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 14.

[15] W.R. Lethaby: Medieval Architecture; op cit; p. 63-4.

[16] J. D. Breckenridge: The Two Sicilies; op cit; p. 53.

[17] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 14.

[19] In J. Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession: op cit; p.32

[20] Ibid. p.48.

[21] Ibid. p.71.

[22] Ibid. p.32.

[24] J. Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession; Preface: XVI.

[25] R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art; op cit;  p.23.

[26] A. de Laborde: Voyage pittoresque et historique de l'espagne, Paris, 1806-1820;

G. de Prangey: Monuments Arabes et moresques de Cordoue, Seville  et Grenade.... Paris, 1836-9. Idem, essai sur l'architecture des Arabes et des Mores en Espagne, en Sicilie et en Barbarie, Paris, 1841; J. Goury and O. Jones: Plans, elevations, sections et details of the Alhambra ...... London, 1842-5.

[27] R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art; op cit; p.23.

[28] J.H. Schmidt: Frederich Sarre, Schriften, Berlin, 1935.

[29] In R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art; op cit; p. 30.

[30] W.R. Lethaby: Medieval Architecture; op cit; p. 63. in J. Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession; op cit;  p.203.