INTRODUCTION TO MEDIEVAL ART
Islamic art is the art sponsored by Muslims, those who have submitted themselves to Islam. Islam is the religion founded by Muhammad (c. AD 575-632), who was born in the trading town of Mecca in the Arabian peninsula. In 610 he experienced a revelation of God by means of the angel, Gabriel. He and his followers emigrated (hijra) to the more sympathetic town of Madina in AD 622, or AH (Anno Hegeriae), the base year for the Islamic calendar. His house there would become the prototypical mosque and his dictation of God's revelation in the language of the Arabian peninsula, the Koran or Qur'an ("recitation"), would become the chief guide to Islam. He became, as a result of God's choice, the head, later to be termed Caliph, of a political community united by belief. Mecca was soon conquered and its ancient cult center, the Ka'ba (cube), made the goal of pilgrimage.
Fig. 1. A page from a Koran of around 900
Conquest of the civilized world began and proceeded with astonishing speed, bringing an end to the exclusively Arabian makeup of believers. As "people of the book" Jews and Christians were not required to convert, but a special tax was imposed. Although the structure of the Muslim empire favored the pure Arabs, soon a majority of Muslims were Mawali, that is, not of Arab descent. Their discontents came to be identified with the Shi'a movement which championed the claims of 'Ali and his descendants to the Caliphate. Shi'ite successors of a descendent of an uncle of Muhammad, Muhammad ibn 'Ali ibn al-Abbas, overthrew the aristocratic Arabian Caliphate of the Umayyads in 750. The second Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, founded the Abbasid capital at Baghdad, on the Tigris near the ancient Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon in 662. Sasanid and Iranian customs would transform Islamic culture.
Fig. 2 - The Muslim world in the tenth century
Through Muhammad's revelation Islam became a religion ultimately centering, like the Christian Bible, on God's coming judgment of humans at the end of time and therefore concerned with the individual's relationship to God and behavior in this world. The Koran ordained prayer five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Once a week, on fridays at noon, it involves the whole community and took place in the mosque ("place of prostration"), where the direction of Mecca is marked by a niche (mihrab). Rather than a priesthood, the Prophet or his representative became imams, leaders of collective worship. Islamic art was not, in fact, Islamic in the sense that Buddhist art is Buddhist or Christian art is Christian. That is, it did not take as its subject the illustration either of its God or the history and tenets of the Islamic faith. Rather, Islamic art signifies the art of the people who submitted to Islam, the Muslims, from Spain to India. Ornamental patterns dominated. But although animal and human figures appeared less frequently than in Classical, Christian and Oriental art and were excluded from certain settings, the commonly expressed idea of a Semitic iconoclasm shared with the Jews and based on a Koranic prohibition of images is not historically based. Islamic culture shared with others that proceeded it a desire to glorify rulers and to celebrate life, and it drew freely upon models, including animate creatures, from non-Islamic cultures, adapting what it took, of course, to its own particular aesthetic. The Classical repertory of forms inherited from the arts of ancient Greece and Rome provided the major part of the Islamic artistic vocabulary. It is a distortion to consider Islamic art as an art exclusively of surface. Ancient Egyptian and early medieval art in the west, uninformed by the Classical tradition, were less plastically conceived. Nevertheless, the hallmark of Islamic art was the inventive and finely crafted character of decorative patterns, geometric or floral, eminently adaptable to a variety of surfaces from the tiny to the monumental. In this it shows a remarkable unity over centuries of time in centers thousands of miles apart. Only in two areas was Islamic art essentially original: in the structure chosen to house communal prayer, the mosque, and in developing the words of revelation themselves as as an artistic form.
Jerusalem. Dome of the Rock, A.D. 691.
Built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik on the former site of the Jewish Temple as a commemorative structure.(A mosque stood just to the south.) Ancient tradition placed the burial of Adam and Abraham's offering of his son Isaac for sacrifice on the rock centered under the dome. Although it eventually became associated with the Ascent of Muhammad to the throne of God, as described in surah 17: 1, Abd al-Malik intended to honor Abraham, the Patriarch of all three religions. Its form and decoration depended upon Byzantine precedents, but the choice of Koranic passages inscribed in mosaic on the interior emphasize the theme of Islam's ascendancy over previous religions.
Fig. 3. Dome of the Rock - exterior
Fig. 4. Dome of the Rock - interior
Fig. 5. Dome of the Rock - plan
Córdoba, Spain. Mosque, 8-10 cent.
The Umayyad governor of Ifriqiya, Musa ben Nasair, sent Tariq in 711 to Spain, where he defeated the Visigothic king and proceeded to conquer all but the northern coast of the peninsula. In 756 the Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman (+788), who had escaped the Abbasid massacre of his family, arrived in Spain and made Córdoba his capital. In 929 Abd al-Rahman III took the title of Caliph. The caliphate lasted until 1031, when rule lapsed into independent states. As Córdoba grew, the Friday mosque had to be enlarged. The mosaics of the tenth-century mihrab were contributed by the Byzantine emperor.
Fig. 6. Mosque of Córdoba - exterior
Fig. 7. Mosque of Córdoba - interior
Fig. 8. Mosque of Córdoba - plan
A background dominated by manuscript painting rather than, as in Italy, mural painting led to the development of a different approach to the idea of a more realistic visual art in the North. Painting destined for devotional texts would be examined closely and repeatedly encouraged highly detailed renderings. The more realistic style vis à vis Italy must also have owed something to the relative absence in the north of Classical models. The devotional setting for Northern painting also encouraged a more complex symbolism. Eventually the Italian example fostered panel painting, but the trends established in manuscript painting carried over into the new medium. Indeed, they were enhanced by the exploitation of the medium of oil. Sculpturre also shared this realistic direction.
When closed the wings show the Vyds and an Annunciation and Adam and Eve.