During a trip over the weekend, I had the pleasure of exploring the Art Institute of Chicago. As I wandered through the extensive collection and viewed masterpiece after masterpiece, many of which define moments and reflect attitudes about Western culture, I began to think about the history of art in the Middle East. I discovered a few artistic relics from the Middle East at the Art Institute, such as carpets, medallions, and tiles, but I didn’t have time to see everything. So, I’ve since done some research and discovered some interesting information about Islamic and Middle Eastern art throughout history.
What is Islamic Art?
As evidenced by its name, the category of Islamic art includes work that was created with the specific purpose of honoring the religion of Islam. However, according to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, secular art that was created “in lands under Islamic rule and influence” can also fall into this category. That is true even if the artist or piece itself has no direct connection with the religion of Islam.
Since the category spans across an immense period of time and geographic area, Islamic art varies between regions and eras. It has also been influenced to an extent by external forces from other cultures. Despite all of this, there are several unifying qualities that set Islamic art apart:
- Calligraphy– Long perceived as an honorable art form by Muslims, calligraphy appears in engravings on architectural structures, pottery, glass, stone, wood, and cloth works. Although the script is associated with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, it is prevalent in both religious and secular works.
- Patterns– Elaborate designs made up of geometric and vegetal (relating to plants) patterns are very common in Islamic art. These repetitive techniques may represent the boundless and everlasting nature of God.
- Figural Representation– Images of figures, both human and animal, show up in many forms of art, including as decoration on architectural structures, textiles and paintings, and occasionally sculptures. However, figural representation in Islamic art is almost exclusive to secular works, as the Qur’an forbids idolatry. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God.” For this reason, portrayals of living beings almost never appear in religious art.
- Islamic art generally attempts to portray not only physical forms, but also the nature and metaphysical significance of the images.
- Most Islamic art was created by unknown artists, with the exception of well-known calligraphers, as signatures on pottery, carvings, and textiles are rare. This provides a stark contrast to Western society, which places a high emphasis on artists and their techniques and style.
- Islamic art is predominantly expressed in craft arts, such as pottery, cloth works, and ceramics. This also contrasts Western tradition, in which paintings and sculptures are the most common art forms.