Islamic art has been produced in diverse regions using a variety of materials and patterns. It is generally agreed that the term ‘Islamic art’ characterises the art and architecture produced in the lands ruled by Muslims in the service of the faith, but also secular art created by artists in these regions regardless of their religious affiliations. ‘The term suggests an art unified in style and purpose, and indeed there are certain common features that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands.’1
The regions conquered by 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 decorative styles that evolved was the vegetal pattern which used stems that scrolled symmetrically and regularly around evenly spaced leaves and flowers, an infinite pattern that came to be known as arabesque.
Developed in the Eastern Mediterranean regions once controlled by the Romans, the arabesque acquired distinctive forms in the diverse 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 book bindings. 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, incorporating local styles.
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.
1 Islamic Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Department of Islamic Art, The Nature of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sheila R. Canby, Islamic Art in Detail, Harvard University Press, 2005