Islam’s Contributions to Western Art
As I research the underlying archetypes and philosophies of Moroccan art and design, I’ve begun to suspect the West has a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to Islamic achievements in art. Islam isn’t commonly credited with having Art, with a capital A. Rather, Islamic art is labeled as decoration or ornamentation. This is probably because 1) the Islamic empire established sophisticated art forms by the 11th century, several hundred years before the Renaissance, which gave European civilizations a political motivation to claim the influence as their own; and 2) Islamic artists don’t do paintings.
Despite the political motivation of Western civilization to erase traces of Islamic influence from Art, the desire to create representational Art on the part of Western artists gives us insight into the creative contributions brought through the Islamic empire. For example, the above detail is from a painting done by Masaccio in 1426 for a church in Pisa. The painting shows Mary wearing a robe decorated with Arabic calligraphy.
The tendency of the West to ignore or diminish Islamic contributions to Art is also because the West hasn’t socially invested themselves with understanding number symbolism or tracking its migration through the course of human history. Number symbolism and geometric design form a vibrant visual language that has been kept alive, due to a variety of happy (and sometimes unhappy) circumstances, in Morocco. It is language that is not easily verbalized and, thus, best expressed in the very form it takes.
I recently came across an online lesson plan at Dartmouth University for a course called “Geometry in Art and Architecture.” In the section on number symbolism, there is a picture of an octagonal fountain in Pisa with the following explanation:
“Eight and the octagon represent resurrection and rebirth, because Christ rose from grave 8 days after entry into Jerusalem. Thus they became symbols of baptism, the spiritual rebirth of a person, and many baptistries and baptismal fonts are octagonal.”
The Wikipedia entry on baptismal fountains indicates baptismal fountains were traditionally a hexagonal shape.
Could it be that the fountain shapes in Pisa were influenced by the fountains they saw in the Islamic world? From Wikipedia’s entry on Pisa:
“In 1113 Pisa and the Pope Paschal II set up, together with the count of Barcelona and other contingents from Provence and Italy (Genoese excluded), a war to free the Balearic Islands from the Moors: the queen and the king of Mallorca were brought in chains to Tuscany. Even though the Almoravides soon reconquered the island, the booty taken helped the Pisans in their magnificent program of buildings, especially the cathedral, and Pisa gained a role of pre-eminence in the Western Mediterranean.”
I would have to research more about the referenced fountain to make a convincing argument, such as when it was constructed. And I would need to reference more than wikipedia entries. Yet, it seems likely that the interactions of Pisa with the Almoravide Dynasty influenced their design. To ignore the connection and contribution of Islam to number symbolism in architecture and design strikes me as narrow-minded.
For one culture to lay claim to a particular shape is absurd. I don’t attempt to argue that Islamic society owns the octagon. However, it is important to understand symbolism, the migration of symbols, and the common origins, preference, and application of human symbolic language. Certain numbers and shapes have been preferred by humans for thousands of years, just as have certain crops, animals, social structures, and rituals. Geometric art and numerical symbolism is used in religion, but it is also independent of it.
The problem with not understanding the common language of symbolism is that you can use it to isolate or judge the other. For instance, I was raised as a Catholic. I don’t practice the faith, but I have a hard time with anyone who would tell me my mother is a pagan. Let’s just say it’s not her style. It is popular to dissect Catholic iconography for signs of a sinister association with early religion. Catholicism certainly has problems, but I don’t think you need to probe as deep as analyzing the symbols on papal clothing to find them.
Pope John Paul II, at World Youth Day 2000, was wearing a crimson and gold stole, which bears the symbols of Baal / Shamash within an eight-pointed star of Ishtar. An enlargement is shown below. Source: Pagan Sun Worship and Catholicism
The number symbolism, philosophy, and artistic traditions that are exemplified by Islamic design and architecture are a visual record of the common art history of humanity. The symbols they employ are as old as human civilization; they draw from Greek philosophy, particularly Pythagorean tradition, as well as Monotheistic traditions. Moroccan art evolved from all these traditions in a unique way.
Through Moroccan and Islamic architecture and art, which is much more than mere ornamentation, we can trace the evolution of a symbolic language that is common to all humanity. This idea is well expressed in an introduction to a seminar on Universal Principals of Islamic Art by Keith Critchlow, one of the rare academics devoted to understanding Islamic architecture and visual arts and founder of the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts programme (V.I.T.A.) at the Royal College:
For centuries, the nature and meaning of Islamic art has tended to be misunderstood in the West, being regarded as no more than decoration. This pictural survey of the geometrical patterns of Islamic art will reveal how they express intrinsic cosmological laws affecting all Creation. Their primary function is to lead the mind from the literal and mundane world towards an underlying spiritual reality.
The recovery of an understanding of the symbolic meaning of these patterns and, furthermore, of the practical skill to embody them in art, craft and architecture, enables us to see the beauty of the eternal that shines through the world of the transient. The principles of Islamic art do not only belong to Islam, but are universal principles that are the birthright of every human being.
For more information on Islam’s influence on Western ideas and design, please watch When the Moors Ruled in Europe.
Comments eagerly welcomed.