The Impact of Islamic Art and Aesthetics on Early Western Crafts and Industries, and Sources of Influence


 The preceding outline has avoided troubling itself too much with instances of Islamic medieval influences for the simple reason that it seeks to use such instances in the following to highlight three main points, which are amongst those central to this work:

-The crucial role of Islamic influence in the awakening of the Christian West , here in the field of early crafts and industries courtesy of the Islamic artistic influence.

-The substance of such early crafts and industries, which was Islamic.

-The re-occurrence of the same patterns, routes and means of influence observed already with regard to other changes, thus highlighting, once more, that all changes occurring in medieval Western Christendom , whatever their nature, go back to one and single source: the Islamic.


Beginning with earthenware objects, in their wider definition here, which occupy one of the leading places in both Western arts, crafts and early industries, highlighting how admiration led to unrestrained imitation. The crusades, first, and then Spain, were the principal sources of influence.

 Let us suppose, says Schnyder, that you had joined the powerful crusade movement in one of the northern countries, and had passed the important point, Constantinople, and had safely reached the goal of the undertaking: the Holy Land.[1] `There you would very soon have noticed that the material, clay, played quite a different and far more significant role than at home. In fact, you would not at first have recognized certain clay products as such and would have suspected that they had been made of some far more precious material. The potters in the coastal countries along the eastern Mediterranean were able to employ various techniques which made it possible for them to give their products such brilliance that the eye would have been deceived.’[2] Such products soon found their way to the Christian West for decorative purposes. The Vatican, for instance, owns an Egyptian splash-ware vessel once used as a reliquary, and a white carved semi porcelain cup preserved for its rarity as the chalice of San Girolamo.[3] Islamic lustre-painted bowls, prized for their colour and brilliant surface, were embedded in the walls of some Italian churches;[4]such as with the so-called bacini, flat, round, glazed vessels which for colouristic effects are set into the fabric of some Italian churches, whether in the facade or the campaniles, and there is little doubt that wares from different Muslim countries, especially Egypt  and the Maghrib are prominently displayed among them.[5]

   Local demand, and acquired skills via Muslim craftsmen, soon played their part in stimulating a local Western Christian production of these same objects, and here the Spanish  route played a central role. Schnyder shows how Muslim skills passed on first from Muslim Malaga to Christian Manises in the neighbourhood of Valencia , before passing North to Italy, and also to France.[6]With the latter, this took place after relations were established between Manises and Avignon during the years 1362-64, when we hear in 1382-85 of a certain Jehan de Valence who was employed in the service of the Duc de Berry and who produced painted faience tiles in Poitiers and in Bourges (in France).[7] The same technique used to produce the tiled floor, which the Prince of Burgundy had made in 1391 for his castle in Hesdin by `Jehan le Voleur’ and Jehan de Moustier, after drawings by the court painter Melchior Broederiam.[8]The challenge posed by the ceramics of Valencia producing amazing results in the French centres.[9] The more direct Islamic influence, of course, as Ettinghausen notes, particularly of its Hispanic-Muslim varieties with their tin glazes and sgraffito, or lustre decorations, can be seen in the nascent Italian pottery production, which was soon to enjoy such an extraordinary flowering.[10]Small bowls, vases, pots, and the drug jars called albarelli, as well as specific decorative motifs, were also readily taken over, and the artistic effects of the techniques which had originated in the Near East and had been developed in Spain were still further refined in the different Italian centres, but, Ettinghausen rightly points out, before long they turned to a figural imagery quite alien to the East and with it a specifically Western type of pottery came into being.[11]



 Textile products of Islamic origin, first, served diverse decorative uses. There are numerous surviving examples of early medieval Islamic silks such as the famous 10th century Buwayhid Suaire de St. Josse from the Pas-de- Calais, or the Holy Coat of Jesus in the Trier Cathedral.[12] This is also the case of the 'Veil' of Caliph Hisham II (976-1013) (Muslim Spain), which is possibly part of a dress given as a battle trophy to the Church of San Esteban in San Esteban de Gormaz, and the same applies to the great Almohad textiles of the 12th Century.[13]Such was the appreciation of Islamic decorative models that when at the end of the Middle Ages and during the early Renaissance  painters wanted to represent the Madonna in a worthy garment, they often adorned her robes with border designs in which Arabic writing was imitated.[14]

In the 12th-13th centuries, an important development took place as the Islamic textile patterns were taken over by European weavers who paraphrased them freely, albeit on a reduced scale; first to be copied, the Sasanian-type roundels with pairs of animals were copied in Lucca and Regensburg, then there followed ogival composition schemes and geometric tile patterns which were woven in `Mudejar patterns of Chinese  derivation.’[15] 


 The Oriental carpet as we know it, Ettinghausen says, is assumed to have been brought to the Near East by the Seljuk Turks when, in the middle of the 11th century they moved west from their Central Asian homes, the patterns undoubtedly further developed in Anatolia in the 12th-13th centuries.[16]Two types of association are attached to carpets in Europe from the High Middle Ages on, Denny observes, as furnishings for the altar area in churches, and as accoutrements for the thrones of royalty; in each case, carpets are identified with sanctity, wealth, and power.[17] By the 12th-13th century, carpets are represented in ever-increasing numbers in Italian paintings.[18] When depicted in European paintings, these carpets are often shown as floor coverings under the feet of the Madonna or before the throne of a king or pope, or they are seen hanging from windows as colourful decorations displayed on feast days.[19]

In the late Middle Ages the rugs and carpets were adapted to large commercial carpets;[20]and in the 15th century began the European carpet mania that led to the westward flow of thousands of carpets; such a popularity of these works, eventually leading to imitations of the Middle East ern carpets being created not only in Spain but in England  and in central Europe as well. [21]



      Fairly everything else followed the same pattern, whereby attraction to the Islamic object is followed by its Western `production’. Thus, briefly, here, the Damascus  inlaid metal work was imported to Europe, and became the source when the idea of copper plate printing arose.[22] There is, in Venice , the establishment of a workshop of Muslims producing versions of Mamluk metalwork tailored to Italian taste.[23]

 Glass  objects found their way to Western decorative places, in churches, cathedrals, palaces, etc, the most celebrated of the ecclesiastic treasures in St Stephen’s in Vienna being an enamelled Syrian pilgrim bottle of about 1280, thought to contain earth from Bethlehem which was saturated with the blood of the Innocents.[24] The Venetian glass industry, as the previous chapter amply showed, took its origin in the imitation of Syrian art; and the materials were brought from Syria .[25]

  Book binding also impacted in similar fashion. Many affluent Muslims had bibliophile inclinations, and appreciated calligraphy and paid handsomely for sumptuous bindings.[26]The craft of bookbinding was highly developed and specialised in fine leather (Cordovan, Moroccan ), which was embellished with gold tooling.[27]The first mention of a gilding process occurs in a North African technical handbook pertaining to the arts of the book, written between 1062 and 1108, while the first gold-tooled binding for an Almohad sultan of Morocco  dates from 1256.[28]Western Christendom  acquired the skills from Islam, but substituted cardboard for wood as the core material for the covers, and then the gilding of the leather, especially by means of a hot tool.[29] The earliest known Western use of this technique is Italian and dates from 1459,[30] and the history of the craft in its most creative period, the second half of the 16th century, cannot be understood without taking Muslim bindings into special consideration. [31]



 The Western `re-production’ of Islamic objects, just as with all other changes seen in previous chapters, occurred precisely via the same sources of influence. The earliest, without a doubt, and quite logical, is the usual Mozarab source. The Mozarabs were Christians living amongst Muslims in Spain, and being the earliest, nearest, and most powerful link between both cultures, they were bound to be the first transmitters of Islamic influences. Their influence was felt as early as the 9th-10th century in the Asturias, most notably in the Churches of Valdedios and San Martin de Salas.[32] The Romanesque art in France came from Spain during the great part of the 11th century via Mozarab monasteries, and not the least important which spread the Road of Saint Jacques through which many French passed through Aragon, Navarre, Castile and Leon to get to Compostelle.[33] In the 11th and 12th centuries, the French could have directly come across Islamic works through their participation to the re-conquests of Castile and Aragon; but the resemblances of Mozarab art with Muslim Spain explain that as much as that French participation of the re-conquest the borrowings of French Romanesque art from Islam.[34]The combined Mozarab-pilgrim-French southern participation in the wars in Spain, meant that the South of France , with places such as Toulouse, becoming the centre of an Orientalizing type of Romanesque art.[35]Other forms of Islamic art in the south of France are seen at Le Puy, some remarkable carved wooden doors bearing Kufic inscriptions applied in ornamental ways, and this use of Kufic decoration spread later, even as far as England .[36] 


The Sicilian-Italian route, equally, imposes itself as a major source of influence. The early Sicilian rulers, Roger II, in particular, had been vastly encouraging to Islamic artistic creation. The Islamic legacy was in the architectural and decorative style of early Norman churches, as well as in the minor decorative arts of the Norman period.[37] The suburbs of Palermo, like the Zisa, whose name derives from the Arabic al-Aziz, "the Splendid",[38] highlight the Islamic influence. The columns of the Cathedral of Palermo were sculptured with floral ornaments, interspersed with inscriptions in Kufic characters.[39] The doors of the church of the Martorana were carved by local craftsmen, recalling the skills of the Muslims who wrought the fantastic ceiling of Roger's own Palace Chapel.[40] The roof structure and ceiling of the nave of the Chapel are the work of Muslims, decorated with paintings of Oriental style illustrating Eastern legends and fables.[41] Islamic influence persisted even under William 1 (The Bad) (ruled 1154-1166), the heir to Roger II.[42] He built a number of retreats in the outskirts of Palermo, the geometric structuring of the design suggesting a relation to woven textile patterns, a frequent means of transmission of ornamental motives during the Middle Ages.[43] Frederick II , for his part, through his encouragement, stirred the diffusion of Muslim arts from Sicily  to Lombardy.[44]

For centuries, also, Italy, to the north, had the largest collections of Islamic art in Europe, a legacy of the vigorous trade between East and West.[45] The Italian `Oriental’ strongholds are highlighted by Sweetman who notes the strategically placed presence of medieval and Renaissance  Venice , continuously purveying Eastern design to the rest of Western Europe.[46]Muslim artists settled in Venice played a great part in introducing into Europe technique of filling depressed parts with gold tints, decorations of wood covers with enamel or warded ivory, or inlaid with gold, silver, or gems etc.[47]


And, of course, the crusade route, once more. Textiles , metalwork, even glass and ceramics, hitherto part of trade, during the crusades became almost automatic items of the loot brought back from the East.[48] Islamic artistic influences on Western architectural decorations were re-produced motifs found on objects.[49]  In the wake of the first crusade, for instance, is a striking development in the field of architectural ceramics and bricks used to construct decorative patterns.[50] The art of faience decoration began to show its influence on the ceramic work of France in the 12th century, when Arabic letters were imitated on the enamel tiles of St Antonin.[51] The production of decorative floors first appears in the second half of the 12th century in Northern France and bordering areas and flourished at the beginning of the 13th century.[52] `It would seem that quite suddenly,’ Schnyder notes, `masters appeared who were able to refine the surface of their architectural ceramic products not only with a white engobe, a covering of white fired clay, but also with a simple lead glaze.’[53]

 Which is precisely the same conclusion made with regard to other sudden changes: castle fortification, arches, bridge construction, hospitals, windmills, etc, which occurred precisely at the same time, on the same models, and from the same source.


The Islamic source is further reinforced by the fact that changes, which occurred subsequently, in their substance, or agents, were Islamic, besides the timing of such changes, which occur precisely when such Islamic link is established.[54] And this is also evident with cultural influences as can be seen now.

[1] R. Schnyder: Islamic Ceramics: A source of inspiration; op cit;  p. 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] M.D. Whitman: Ceramics; Dictionary of the Middle Ages; op cit; vol 3; pp. 238-40; at pp. 238-9.

[4] Ibid.

[5] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 18.

[6] R. Schnyder: Islamic Ceramics: A source of inspiration; op cit; p. 34.

[7] M. Olivar Davdi:  La Ceramica trecentista; op cit; p. 135 fwd.

[8] Ibid; p. 137; M. Dehlinger, "Les Incunables de la Faience Francaise 'a Poitiers et a Bourges," Memoires de la Societe 'des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, 16, (1940), pp. 3-41.

[9] R. Schnyder: Islamic Ceramics: A source of inspiration; op cit; p. 34.

[10] B. Rackham, Guide to Italian Maiolica; London, 1933, pp. 1-2, 8, 82, idem, Catalogue of Italian Maiolica; London, 1940, in R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 18.

[11] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 18.

[12] W.B. Denny: Rugs and Carpets; in Dictionary of Middle Ages; op cit; vol 10; pp. 546-552; at p. 548.

[13] L. May, Silk Textiles  of Spain. Eighth to Fifteenth Century (New York, 1957), pp 14-17; in R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 16.

[14] R. Ettinghausen: Islamic Art; op cit; p.18

[15] O. Von Falke, Kunstgeschichte der Seidenweberei, ii, Berlin, 1913, figs. 261-74, 293-6 (Italy), 308-16 Regensburg, 371-9 (Spain), 351-2, 354-5 (Chinese  influence). In R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 16.

[16] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 16.

[17] W.B. Denny: Rugs and Carpets; op cit; p. 548.

[18] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 16.

[19] W.B. Denny: Rugs and Carpets; op cit; p. 549; R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative arts; op cit; p. 16.

[20] W.B. Denny: Rugs and Carpets; op cit; p. 551.

[21] Ibid.

[22] C.R. Conder: The Latin  Kingdom; op cit; p. 334.

[23] S.J. Auld: Kuficising inscriptions in the work of a gentile da Fabriano; Oriental Art; 32/3; 1986; pp. 245-65.

[24] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 19.

[25] C.R. Conder: The Latin  Kingdom; op cit; p. 334.

[26] F. Reichmann: The Sources of Western Literacy; Greenwood Press; London; 1980. p.206.

[27] Ibid.

[28] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim Decorative arts; op cit;  p. 20.

[29] R. Ettinghausen: Near Eastern book covers and their influence on European bindings; Ars Orientalis; 3; 1959; pp. 113-31; R. Ettinghausen:  Muslim decorative arts; op cit; p. 20.

[30] A. R. A. Hobson, 'Two Renaissance  Bindings,' The Book Collector, vii (1958), 265-6; R. Ettinghausen: Near Eastern Book Covers;  op cit;121-2.

[31] R. Ettinghausen: Muslim decorative Arts ; op cit; p. 20.

[32] V. Lagardere: Moulins d'Occident Musulman; op cit; p.63.

[33] E. Lambert: l’Art Hispano Mauresque et l’Art Roman; in Hesperis; Vol 17; pp 29-42.pp. 32-3.

[34] Ibid.

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

[36] Ibid.

[37] A.L. Udovitch : Islamic Sicily ; in Dictionary of the Middle Ages; 11; p.263.

[38] J. D. Breckenridge: The Two Sicilies; op cit; Breckenbridge: p. 55.

[39] S. P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; p.  26.

[40] J. D. Breckenridge: The two Sicilies; op cit; p. 53.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid. p. 55.

[43] Ibid.

[44] G. Sarton : Introduction; op cit; Vol II, p.575:

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

[46] J. Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession; op cit; p.3.

[47] W. Durant: The Age of Faith, op cit; p. 908.

[48] O. Grabar: Islamic Architecture and the West; op cit; p 60.

[49] Ibid.

[50] R. Schnyder: Islamic Ceramics; op cit; p. 29.

[51] C.R. Conder: The Latin  Kingdom; op cit; p. 333.

[52] A. Lane: A Guide to the Collections of Tiles, Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 1960, p. 27ff.; E. Eames, Medieval Tiles, British Museum, London (1968).

[53] R. Schnyder: Islamic Ceramics; op cit; p. 29.

[54] See J.Sweetman: The Oriental Obsession.