Part six in a series on D&Dables in art history
"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
--Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance
|Royal Mosque, Isfahan, 17th century.|
The little niches are called muqarnas.
|19th C. Mughal Qur'an--from Iran or India|
|Great Mosque, Damascus c. 715|
|Samanid bowl with calligraphy, 10th century but looking somehow very modern.|
|Another one. There are lots of types of Islamic calligraphy--this long geometric|
kind is called kufic script, it's fairly common.
The problem is pushed to the foreground with the art of the Islamic world because--depending how you look at it--either it's almost all decorative or none of it is. Or maybe everything religious isn't and everything that isn't religious is--even when they're done by the same artist in almost the same style. Or something. It's hard to say and better, probably, to just look.
|Incense burner, Egypt, 8th-9th C.|
Part of this has to do with religious injunctions against depicting things. The precise rules are different depending where you are and who you ask--sometimes its a rule about depicting just the Prophet, sometimes it's a rule about depicting people, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any living thing, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any real living thing. I'm no expert on the rules, though I do remember in school seeing one Persian manuscript where a later owner had gone through and painted a black line through the neck of every person in the manuscript.
|Wonderfully enigmatic image of the Prophet looking at|
a David Lynch box. 1222. The veiled face is one
convention adopted to avoid depicting him.
Point is: the most common way to express stories and ideas was through calligraphy. Taking the overt content--words--and imparting beauty and perhaps new shades of meaning to them by how they were written.
|Blue Qur'an--North Africa, 9th-10th C.|
Both the line and the ethic of calligraphy (take a known and legible thing, beautify it with strict attention to geometry and proportion) influenced every single other art form in the culture. The mosques often have calligraphy worked into the reliefs, the paintings have a pictograph-like line, the metalwork is done in dense script-like meshes of vegetal designs.
|Ince Manare madrasa, Konya, Turkey, 1258. That's a knotted|
prayer running up the front of the building.
Here's what I particularly like about this from a D&D perspective. Consider Jack Vance's Dying Earth as quoted by Jeff:
Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.
Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. [...] Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.
|Amulet case--10th-11th C.|
The black stuff is a compound called niello, often
used for medieval inlay.
There is something almost gnostic in this: the world and everything in it is just the expression of something else happening in another, higher reality. All our world's objects and pleasures are just a text about that higher world.
|Great Mosque, Cordoba, Spain|
|Persian Qur'an, using Nasta'liq script-- 16th-17th century|
|Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (1404, but|
completely reconstructed in the 70s I think)
|Lutfallah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, finished in 1618|
|Various medieval braziers...|
I think the colorful and monumental qualities of Islamic architecture are partially due to having (in a decent proportion of the very many countries which were ruled by an Islamic civilization at one time or another) a lot less foliage to compete with than the rest of us. Bukhara, for instance, gives the impression that if you wanted any kind of environment you had to build it yourself:
|Great Mosque, Yazd, Iran 1330|
So calligraphy and carpets influence the buildings, and the buildings influence everything else. These influences have something in common: they're all things only people make. Nature plays a role in every civilization's art, of course, but it wouldn't be crazy to say it plays a smaller roll in the art of the Islamic world than in that of any other great world civilization. It appears as pattern and abstraction, but relatively rarely as a force in itself.
|Weird cat-shaped incense burners were fairly|
common in 12th Century Iran
|I have no idea how accurate this is, but here's someone's|
explanation for the variety of weird felines: "While zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations were forbidden under Islamic religious law, the so-called “principle of improbability” was employed to create animals that were so far removed from reality that they could not be argued to be in any way representational of nature; thus were the strictures avoided. "
This painting, done in 1488 by the renowned Bihzad, features Zuleykha chasing Yusef through seven doors and is one of the most magical things I have ever seen:
Here is Bihzad actually taking on nature, with the typically Persian use of rich colors derived from jewelry, lustred tilework and textile design:
Mir Sayyid Ali came along a little while after Bihzad...
It's interesting to compare this battle scene to how a Japanese artist might have painted it. In both cases, the trees could be stylized and isolated, but the Persian painter has decisively and consciously transformed the tree into a beautiful symbol of a tree, whereas a Japanese painter would have given us some approximation of some seen tree.
|From the Bayasanghori Shahnameh|
Likewise, you can directly compare this anonymous Ottoman portrait to the Bellini painting that inspired it:
And, taking a bite out of the other end of cultural appropriation sandwich, here's a Persian hero killing a totally Chinese dragon...
|Bahram Gur Kills the Dragon. 1371.|