Mohammedan Art

As far as Europe was concerned before the fifteenth century, when the Turkish invasion overran its eastern countries, Mohammedan art was confined to Spain and Sicily. The Moors were, however, not expelled from Granada till 1492 and meantime their art had considerably influenced the Spanish Gothic.

The Crusaders were brought in contact with the art of Syria and Egypt when the Arabs and Turks were masters of these countries and by way of Sicily also the Arab art had influence on Southern Italy. Some slight mention of it is a proper appendix to any history of Byzantine art.

It was in the seventh century that the Arabian world, under the influence of the teachings of Mohammed, began its career of foreign conquest. Of Arab art before this time we know at present nothing. It was in the East Roman provinces of Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, then conquered, that the earliest Mohammedan art developed from the Byzantine. The mosques were frequently Christian churches transformed to this use or were sometimes copied from them. The Mosque of Omar at Jerusalem is reputed to be of the former class. The El Aksa Mosque at Jerusalem is known to be of the latter.

In later days the Turks, who became the military force of the Arabs and then converts to their Arab faith, and subsequently became the political masters of their former lords, not only converted the St. Sophia Church to their own worship but also built the later mosques of Constantinople on modifications of its plan. It was especially the Byzantine art of Egypt which gave the first impulse to the Arab. In Cairo, where we find, aside from Damascus and Jerusalem, the most accessible illustrations of the early Mohammedan mosques, an open court surrounded by arcades was the plan first generally adopted. Dome buildings surmounting a cruciform plan were at a later day the ruling type.

In these constructions and in their ornament the fanciful and imaginative nature of Arab art wandered widely from Byzantine types ; but in the elements of construction and in the elements of ornament the original forms are obvious. Columns and capitals were often plundered from Byzantine buildings and rarely are devoid of Byzantine reminiscence. The well-known law of Mohammed forbidding imitations of human or animal form in art found no obvious violations in the scrolls and trefoils of the East Roman decorative system. These were the originals of most of the patterns known as the “arabesque.” A distinctive form of ornament is however the complicated and intricate linear system which has such beautiful examples in the wood carvings of latticed windows and on surface panels. It is said that all the decorative works of the Arabs in Egypt were mainly executed by the Copts, the native Christian inhabitants of the country, and it has been suggested that the initiative here was also thus derived. There is no doubt that Byzantine Egypt was the first important art school of the Arabs.

The minaret, or tower from which the worshiper was summoned to his prayers, was also an original architectural form.

By way of North Africa and the straits of Gibraltar the Arabs invaded Spain at the opening of the eighth century, and for a time became masters of nearly the entire country. Their first onset carried them as far as Southern France. The Moors of North Africa were their converts and attendants and there is little distinction to be drawn in Spain between them. As ultimately confined to the province of Granada the Arab culture has left its most famous monument in the palace of the Alhambra (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). The great Mosque of Cordova, the Alcazar of Seville, and the great tower (minaret) known as the Giralda, in Seville, are otherwise the most quoted survivals of their Spanish architecture.

Aside from their new developments of surface ornament the originality of the Arab architecture shows itself in the employment of the pointed and of the “horseshoe” arch. These forms were most consonant with the light and airy nature of their constructions, which were frequently of a somewhat flimsy character. It is probable that the suggestion for the use of the pointed arch passed into the later Gothic style through the contact of the Crusaders with the Saracenic buildings of the East and through the amalgamation of the Arab and Christian art, which was especially apparent in Sicily. The Arabs had conquered Sicily in the eighth century but were displaced by the Normans as a political power in the eleventh century. As late as the thirteenth century, when Sicily became for a time a territory of the Hohenstaufen Germanic emperors, the Saracenic culture was favored here by the liberality of the Emperor Frederic II. The Cathedral of Palermo is a famous survival of the amalgamated style resulting from this contact.

In general the influence of the Arabs in Europe was most apparent in the matter of tiles and enameled clay, in the manufacture of textiles, and in the diffusion of the patterns which they habitually used in them. The word “Majolica” still bears witness to the importation into Italy of the arts of enameling or glazing pottery from the island of Majorca during its Arab period . The common glazed wares of Spain still show universally the Moresque influence, which has thus penetrated in modern times even to the similar manufactures of Mexico and of South America. The earliest medieval manufactures of silks and velvets in Europe were at Lucca in Italy, where they were introduced from Sicily and from other Oriental sources. Many of our modern textile patterns still bear witness to this history of the art. The importations of the Venetians into Europe of Oriental stuffs had a no less important influence.

The building which best bears witness in our time to the beauty of Arab tile decoration is the Mosque of Omar, at Jerusalem, whose exterior is still entirely covered with enameled tiles in blue and green ornament. This art was obtained partly in Byzantine Egypt and partly in Persia. The Mesopotamian countries were also conquered by the Mohammedans in the seventh century. In these Persian territories a bastard classic art had prevailed since the fourth century B.C. This had amalgamated in later centuries with the Byzantine, each reacting on the other. The technical perfection of tile decoration was however a native Mesopotamian art, since the days of the Chaldeans, and has especially spread from this quarter, through Arab transmission, to the modern world.