Arabesque is a distinct style in Islamic art

Islamic art describes the art created specifically in the service of the faith such as the mosque and its furnishings, but also characterizes the art and architecture produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists.

Tile with Arabesque Decoration,  early 15th century, Turkey Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tile with arabesque decoration, early 15th century, Turkey. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Islamic art has been produced in diverse regions using a variety of materials and patterns. It is generally agreed that the term Islamic art describes the art created specifically in the service of the faith such as the mosque and its furnishings, but also characterizes the art and architecture produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. The lands conquered by the Muslims had their own artistic traditions and, initially, those artists continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons. With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles within the various periods of its development. One of the distinctive styles that developed is the arabesque – employing abstract intertwining vine, leaf, and plant motifs.

The arabesque style is characterized by its rhythmic waves, often implying an infinite design with no beginning or end. One of the contributing factors to the infinite pattern of the arabesque is the growth of leaves, flowers or other motifs from one another rather  than from a single stem. Arabesque is often combined with interlacing geometric and other decorative patterns. Perhaps the vegetation evoked themes of paradise, described in the Qur’an as a garden, while geometry may evoke the diversity in the unity of God’s creation or the sophistication of mathematics in the Islamic lands. The the artists may have been deliberately ambiguous, allowing for the personal interpretation of the art.

Arabesque patterned items at the Aga Khan Museum
Arabesque patterned scarves at the Aga Khan Museum’s gift shop

Developed in the Eastern Mediterranean regions once controlled by the Romans, the arabesque acquired its own distinctive forms in Islamic lands and became a hallmark of Islamic art produced between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries. In order to describe it, Europeans coined the word “arabesque,” literally meaning “in the Arab style,” in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when Renaissance artists began to incorporate Islamic designs in book ornament and decorative bookbindings. Over the centuries the word has been applied to a wide variety of winding, twining, meandering vegetal decoration in art. This art style became popular due to its adaptability to virtually all media, from paper to woodwork and ivory.

References:
Department of Islamic Art, The Nature of Islamic ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sheila R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, Harvard University Press. 2005

Research by Nimira Dewji


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