Islamic Art & Architecture: History & Characteristics

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  • 0:05 Definition of Islamic
  • 0:53 Brief Overview of…
  • 2:10 Islamic Architecture
  • 3:12 Characteristics of Islamic Art
  • 4:06 Figural Art in the…
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How would you decorate surfaces without pictures of people or animals? What do calligraphy and geometry have in common? They're used in Islamic art. In this lesson, explore some history and characteristics of Islamic art and architecture.

Definition of Islamic

The word Islamic identifies art and architecture created for people of Muslim faith. Historically, it also refers to works created in geographic areas ruled by Muslims. Islam as a religion began around 600 CE in what is today Saudi Arabia. By the end of the seventh century, it spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula and eventually covered large areas of Asia and the Middle East, as well as parts of Europe and North Africa.

Islam was a religious and cultural force, and one important idea impacts almost all Islamic art and architecture. Out of respect for Allah, or God, no images of living creatures are depicted. The term for this is aniconism, the absence of direct representation of nature, especially animals or people, in art.

Brief Overview of Islamic History

Islamic history covers a long time period and vast geography. It's divided by dynasties or periods of rule. The first important period was the Umayyad Period (661 - 750 CE), regarded as the earliest phase of Islamic art. As Islam expanded, it incorporated elements of existing art and architecture into its vocabulary. During the Umayyad Period, imagery and architectural forms were adapted from Byzantine and Persian sources. As an example, here's a section of a mosaic, or art made of pieces of tile or glass, from the Dome of the Rock (circa 690 CE), one of Islam's earliest structures. The mosaic, with its flattened space, outlined shapes, and decorative jewel-like quality, is reminiscent of Byzantine art, but without human figures.

Mosaic, Dome of the Rock, circa 690 AD
Mosaic Dome of the Rock

As Islamic culture spread across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, the art matured into a unique style. During the Abbasid Period (circa 750 to 1258 CE), Islamic artists developed their own styles, including geometric designs and foliate, or leaf-like, designs. These elements eventually blended to create the arabesque, which was an intricate spiraling interwoven design original to Islamic art.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture includes two important types of buildings. The first is a structure of worship, called a mosque. Typically, mosques had large central domes and entrances of semi-circular arches. They also included minarets, which were high narrow towers with stairs that led to a balcony from which prayer was called five times a day. Minarets were meant to be seen from a distance as a hallmark of Islam. Inside, walls and surfaces were adorned with decorations, all without reference to animal or human forms.

Another important building in Islam is the madrasah, which was a combination religious and law school. Madrasah architecture changed through time and varied with geographic location, but often they were four-sided structures with a large central court. In this image on your screen of the Agha Bozorg Mosque and Madrasah in Kashan, Iran, you can see examples of mosque architecture, with its distinctive dome and minarets, and the madrasah, which is in the lower half of the image, with open courtyard.

Agha Bozorg Mosque, built in the late 18th century

Characteristics of Islamic Art

As mentioned earlier, most Islamic art forbids depictions of living creatures. Instead, it uses other design components. One of the most fundamental is calligraphy, or the art of writing. In Islamic art, calligraphy is decorative and symbolic because it connects to the idea of transmitting God's word to the people. Also prominent is foliate or vegetal imagery, in which leaves, vines, or other plants are rendered in decorative ways.

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