Ornament impersonates the World and Sky

Issue #3-4 • 2255

The epoch of Bihzad took place in history of arts not only due to the heyday of miniature painting. Ornament also reached the highest level. Bihzad himself and many other miniaturists were consummate in ornamental art. At the same time there were masters majoring only in ornament that was widely used in decoration of manuscripts – covers, front pages and miniatures’ margins.

The epoch of Bihzad took place in history of arts not only due to the heyday of miniature painting. Ornament also reached the highest level. Bihzad himself and many other miniaturists were consummate in ornamental art. At the same time there were masters majoring only in ornament that was widely used in decoration of manuscripts – covers, front pages and miniatures’ margins. The best ornament artists created sketches for decor of buildings, carpets, fabrics, artistic metal, etc. That resulted in formation of unified style which involved different fields of Muslim art. Ornament became a major component of artistic culture. Its advance within Islamic culture was connected with a tendency of art to be adequate for Islamic concept of aniconism. Since Allah shall not be exteriorized, the world He created must be exposed by means abstracted from realities. Ornamental nature of Islamic art was rooted not in embargo on real images, but in requirements for ideal forms.

Formation of Islamic ornamental systems had been running for the 10th-12th centuries. The first ornaments were created for manuscripts. Almost simultaneously the ornament “overcame” architectural spaces. At last, in the 14th- 16th centuries it involved all fields of art due to new technologies. So, since the 14th new architectural decor was enriched with new ceramic facing (composed mosaic and painted majolica) that allowed producing composite patterns of bines and flowers covering a wall. From the end of the 15th century vegetative patterns replaced the geometric in carpet making. Its soft lines became possible due to preliminary sketches on cardboard.

Islamic art had two ornamental systems. The first was geometric – ghirih (or ghireh – from Arab. “knot”) and vegetative – islimi. Ghirih was mainly applied in architectural decor. It combined harmony of form and strict calculation. Evolution of ghirih was connected with progress of mathematics. As for the vegetative ornament, it was used in all fields of art. In Muslim culture, the vegetative decor had taken a leading place. At early stages it played the same role that fine arts played in European cultural tradition. It was distinguished by canonic forms and compositions. However, a main thing was a style – refined and adequate to ideal of beauty. Islimi was a product of oriental mentality approaching oriental music and poetry by nature. Bewitching play of patterns and delayed rhythm of smooth lines associated with a meditative rhythm of makoms, ghazals and rubai full of oriental contemplation and tranquility.

The ornamental systems were developed by professional artists working in workshops – kitabkhana at courts of Muslim governors, famous patrons of art. These workshops were original laboratories and trendsetters. Their role can not be exaggerated. They developed professional art tradition, its characteristic methods, master compositions and elements having become classic. Due to prevalence of Islam and related aesthetics, all countries of the Muslim world were involved in stylistically unified art. Migrations of masters, forcible or voluntary, played an important role in this process. Emergence of ornament was connected with needs in unified aesthetic priorities in the Muslim world, ethnically and politically promiscuous.

Ornament after the Koran required interpretation. So, it was designed for educated and spiritually advanced people. Ornamental forms (zahir) hid deep sense (batin) carrying away to the world of endless associations symbolizing beauty of divine creation. Looking at infinite patterns, a Muslim mentally got to Garden of Eden. The medieval artist Sadig-beg Afshar wrote about his teacher in “Ganun os-sovar” (“Canon of painting”, the early 17th century):

When he aimed his pencil to ornament,

He created the paradise the second time.

Embodiment of the god and divine world by means of ornament was a position of classic Islam. At the same time, Muslim mysticism – Sufism was growing within Islam and became popular in artistic midst. Aesthetic concepts of Islam and Sufism were common in general. However, exactly Sufi mystical ideas became a creative motor which turned the vegetative ornament into advanced symbolic system. Sufis had associated ideas of “divine” and “beauty” that agreed with classic Islam (“Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty”). Furthermore Sufis identified beauty of God with beauty of a woman and laid the foundations of Muslim humanism. Ornament became a way to speak about the most intimate feelings in rather ascetic period of “Muslim Renaissance”. Here is an extract from “Kabus-nameh” (the 11th century) illustrating the said above:

She is a god… alif by the body, her mouth is mim, her curl – nun…

Musk in her curls and curls in musk.

Wriggles in bends and bends in wriggles

Now looking at refined arabesques it is easy to guess what inspired artists. They associated the ideal of beauty with a woman and saw it in refined ornamental lines.

While in the 10th – early 13th cc. the ornament had rich symbolism and took leading position in aniconistic art of classic Islam, later, at the end of 14th – 15th cc., its role was to decorate and to mark belonging to the cultural tradition. That was caused by development of secular tendencies in culture. Realistic tendencies aroused in art:

If art of painting becomes your dream,

Only nature can be your teacher.

Imagination in this field is ill-advised and lost labour,-

wrote Sadig-beg Afshar. Sufism, having brought sensual world in art, was also loosing its position of esoteric brotherhood and turning into hobby of elite. Ornament stood down in favour of miniature painting which introduced trivial scenes alongside with plots of mystical sense.

The vegetative ornament had limited motifs giving opportunity to create uncountable patterns on pages of manuscripts, in architectural decor, carpets and embroideries. As “a few traditional motifs in the Arabian poetry allowed a poet to develop strictly limited circle of themes” as an artist-Muslim created new compositions from canonic elements. It was rather difficult to leave tradition in ornament, but improvisations were unlimited.

The famous medieval writer Qazi Ahmed, sui generis Vasari of East, wrote in “Treatise about calligraphers and artists”: “As six qalems form a foundation of calligraphy as seven elements form the art of ornament. These are islimi, hatai, feranghi, fasali, abr, akre and salami”. His contemporary Sadig-beg Afshar wrote in “Ganun os-sovar”: “Basic elements are seven: islimi, hatai, abr, vag, nilufa and feranghi. Remember each of them, don’t forget bend-e rumi”. Some elements (islimi, hatai, abr, feranghi) are in both lists that emphasizes their importance for artists. Perhaps, the other played an auxiliary role.

A basic motif is islimi (known as arabesque in European literature). Islimi means both a furcated leaf, and vegetative compositions of big spirals, decorated with floral palmettes and islimi leaves at points of contact. A motif of furcated leaf belongs to the most ancient. Its analogues are in Hellinic ornaments, in Sakae-Skythian art and others. However, the leaf obtained new meaning in Islamic art – its name “islimi” is directly connected with a name of this religion. Refined lines adequate to ideals of beauty and content concerning the divine world and Garden of Eden provided its popularity. Its abstracted form was a requirement of Islamic aesthetics. Graceful and florid lines called to the world of associative “divine” images.

A motif of spiral also was used in art of different peoples. So, the spiral was identified with ram horns in the nomadic world. In antique decor spiral-like patterns had vegetative origin (grape-vine). In the 11th-12th centuries the spiral was a basic decorative motif in Byzantine Christian temples. Despite of religious distinctions, Christian Byzantium and Islamic East had cultural and commercial contacts. Muslim artists might turn to experience of Byzantine masters. In Islamic art, the spiral, after islimi, realized attainment of the god and was some kind of model showing inward way to the God.

Feranghi (literally “French”, and generally “European”) came from Europe, namely from European fabrics and tapestry. It was a magnificent floral palmette representing a flower profile. That motif became characteristic for professional ornament artists. However, while European flowers were realistic and recognized enough, flowers of Muslim artists were abstracted from natural prototype aspiring to some ideal form.

At least two motifs were connected with China. These were abr and hatai. Hatai formed a pattern from wide branches which smooth lines reminded islimi. It was popular in architectural decor and weaving. In general hatai (lit. “Chinese)” means a form of Chinese stylized vegetative pattern. At the same time, it was a name of a Turkic tribe which lived in Mongolia and northwest China in the 10th- 12th centuries. The name of the pattern might relate to this tribe which brought hatai in Islamic ornament. An interesting idea of hatai genesis belongs to P. Zahidov who considers that it occurred from the word hat (script) and accordingly concerned calligraphy on buildings. Stylistic affinity of islimi and hatai with calligraphy seems doubtless, however, their vegetative origin is obvious enough.

Abr is a cloud motif (it is known as chi, i.e. Chinese, in European literature). It is a classic element of Chinese art. It got in Islamic ornament from exported Chinese silk fabrics. Besides, Uigur artists playing an important role in oriental miniature painting introduced it. Abr is close to its Chinese prototype in miniature painting. These are typically Chinese clouds with characteristic curls and developed background (mushroom clouds). However, in applied arts, the Chinese variant was replaced by strict symmetry. Clouds obtained forms of wavy rings. Due to winding lines it reminded islimi and perfectly corresponded to Islamic art. The element had also changed semantically. While Chinese cloud symbolized fertility and was connected with sky water and the dragon sending rains, abr was designed to transfer a divine ideal of beauty celebrated by Islamic aesthetics. The cloud motif became popular in architectural decor, miniature, fabrics, carpets, ceramics, etc. Sometimes, it was so close to islimi that experts can confound them.

The origin of nilufar should be connected with Indo-Buddhist art where the lotus associated with Buddha. Semantically the “divine” flower was quite adequate to Muslim ornament. So, it became a canonic motif.

Interesting is a “fantastic” motif of vag-vag – stylized anthropomorphic and zoomorphic heads at joints or ends of spirals. Vag is a fantastic tree in mythology. Its fruit in forms of different heads could talk – “vag-vag”. The motif of speaking tree occurs at Firdawsi (daraht-e guiya) and in Turkic folklore (danyshan-agach). The idea is that “roots” of this “tree” go back to Indian folklore, and accordingly the motif of vag-vag had the Indian origin.

A motif of bendi-rumi (lit. “Byzantine pattern”), mentioned by Sadig-beg Afshar, came from Byzantium. It is a network composition from egg-shaped rhombuses.

A brief review of basic motifs has resulted in unexpected conclusion: all of them had own genesis, and geography of their origin covered the area from Europe and Byzantium up to China. Muslim artists succeeded in synthesis of different elements and created the integral ornamental system which can be attributed only to Islamic art tradition. In this connection it is necessary to note tolerance and openness of Islamic culture which absorbed originally different elements at the stage of own becoming. All these borrowings show that formation of Islamic ornament occurred on formal affinity of its elements. The borrowed patterns changed stylistically and semantically meeting a requirement of Islamic aesthetics to be in line with ideal of beauty.

Religious ideas were reflected in ornament compositional order. Composition always represented a model of the world in Oriental art. Islam put forward its own model: centric – with a big medallion in the center and reproduction of its quarters at corners (composition of lyachak-turunj). Prevalence of this composition was logic as it expressed monotheism. Its classic realization was Caaba – the center of the universe for Muslims. A pilgrim doing hadj circuited Caaba several times and touched the sacred stone by his hand. This circle-wise movement as if found reflection in ornamental spiral which was finished in the center with a leaf of islimi. Richly decorated medallion had become a symbol of divine phenomenon and the center of the universe. There were two types of medallions – round, shams (lit. “Sun”) and elongate – turunj (lit. “an orange”). Genesis of the last one was also connected with the idea of the Sun. In classical oriental literature, turunj, or toranzi sarin (gold turunj) meant the light. In religious works it symbolized the Sun which was the center of the universe. At the same time the medallion acted as a graphic equivalent of the God, thus uniting both concepts. Classical oriental poetry often identified these two ideas:

The light of eternity appeared-

Sun of Muhammad,-

wrote Djami in “Fatihat ash-shabab”.

The universal ornamental system had specific regional features connected with local art traditions. So, in Iran the ornament gravitated to complexity and refinement of forms, in Central Asia – to classic severity and stylistic purity.

Upon extinction of manuscripts the ornament was kept in architectural ceramics, woodcut and stucco. In the 20th century, classic Muslim ornament gave place to European forms of art.

Interest to traditional ornamental decor has increased for years of independence of Uzbekistan. It survives a revival again. Semantically today’s ornament is not connected with divine associations and plays a decorative role. Artists pay attention to stylistic preservation of classic elements. A galaxy of ornament masters has grown for the last decade. They decorate lacquer chests, work on paper and wall. Achievements of medieval art form foundations of their art. They use classic medallion compositions. Shams or turunj are basic motifs. Patterns often include subject motifs – flowers in vase and birds. Traditions of manuscript are also reviving including manufacture of handicraft paper and illumination. The Muslim ornament being a phenomenon of the world culture has come in the 21st century as a symbol of poetic perception of the world.

Elmira Gyul

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