Decorative Ornamentation of Monumental Structures in Medieval Azerbaijan

Issue #3-4 • 1839

In the art heritage of Azerbaijan the significance of architectural d?cor, which is part of the art of construction, is tremendous. It bears traces of dynamic development that has brought aesthetic compliance to the art style of the epoch and integrity of the idea of the universe. Characteristics and principles of decorative ornamentation of materials that possessed special properties and features intended to sharpen artistic sense and perception have preserved traditional skills and devices accumulated by many generations of ustad.

Baked brick, a traditional construction material in monumental architecture, was used to build foundations, walls, vaults and domes. Apart from purely construction purpose, brick was the main element that determined the artistic effect of the 11th-13th century architecture, its imagery and decorative expressivity. Masters introduced carved terra-cotta of primarily natural shades that provided broad opportunities to perform epigraphy, in the main.

Scintillating time when the quality peculiarities of brick dominated, had materialized on the basis of a system of principles in a single stream of organic merger between functionally-constructive and decorative origins in architecture. Brick could be sawn, trimmed and ground, which enabled its use in diverse geometrical ornamental layouts forming an extremely rich decorative fabric on exteriors and interiors.

Labour-intensive performance of complex sets of raised mosaics and the use of blocks imitating brick patterns had been included in the range of architectural ideas of the epoch and determined a reserved plastic-colour saturation of monumental structures. Owing to the progress in natural sciences and construction, geometrical ornamentation was grounded in science for decorating not only flat, but also curved surfaces of vaults, domes and conic roofs. Masterful use and maximal exposition of colouristic, texture and plastic properties of baked brick helped to achieve stylistic integrity and created a peculiar “signature” of the epoch, with gyaja carving and kufi epigraphy, and initially timid inclusion of turquoise slip glaze. A wide range of geometrical ornaments made of baked brick together with carved gyaja adorn the faces and semi-cylinders of memorial structures in Kharragan, Maraga and Nakhichevan, where the artistic-expressive peculiarities of the materials are clearly revealed.

The appearance of turquoise slip glaze that became firmly “entrenched” already by mid 12th century had set a strong foundation for quick development of tiled decoration throughout centuries that followed: from meagre ones, flickering like gems on the ochre-red background of baked brick, to the unrestrained luxury of polychromatic glazed tiles covering all faces and surfaces. Superior technical parameters, durability and colour of tiles had brought a new quality into the aesthetic content of architecture; tiles became widespread and very commonly used. With time, creative search to develop ceramics technology flows into a wide stream of “industrial” approach to polychromatic tiles solution, reaching unbelievable heights.

White-blue tile mosaic dominates in the colour palette of decorative solution for the buildings, which was related to the local tradition of colour composition. Surfaces with this range of colour spectrum appear more distant than those coloured in other shades (1, p. 223). The impression was intensified by the fact that “expectation or advance knowledge of the colour is exceptionally important for achieving maximal effect” (2, p. 10).

Faces of long walls, cylindrical, polygonal and embossed building surfaces and roofs were decorated with glazed bricks that merged, in combination with the very texture of baked brick, into epigraphic or ornamental panels. Decorative properties of qualitatively different materials very distinct in their artistic and plastic development are synthesized in a single organic alloy, acting as a powerful catalyst of the entire complex of human sensations.

Far-reaching objectives set for the construction of parade buildings give a strong impetus to technological research into the enhancement of qualitative parameters and expediting the manufacturing of finishing materials. A remarkable event in this sense was the appearance of a particularly labour-intensive luster, in terms of technology, which is widely known by splendid facing tiles in Khanegakh mausoleum at Pirsaat-Chay (3, p. 27). In the ruins of Maraga observatory (1259), amidst tile-set fragments that constituted geometrical ornamental compositions of stars, diamonds and triangles of turquoise, brown, purple and cream-white colours, they discovered a 45 cm long fragment of a luster frieze with epigraphy raised above floral arabesques. Also here they found a rectangular polychromatic panel (21 x 9 cm) with a complex composition of raised intertwined serpents forming a complete ring, which essentially complement one another. This composition clearly had magical purpose, and its immediate analogue exists in Oljaitu mausoleum in Sultanie (4, pp. 50-53). This once again supports complementary principle in decorative ornamentation of buildings and structures (5, p. 6).

Takht-e Suleiman is an outstanding artistic phenomenon of the second half of the 13th century. Abundant gyaja compositions, fantastic diversity of tile (kashin, luster) decorative ornamentation of all kinds of shapes, dimensions and manufacturing technique constitute several dozens of types (4, pp. 42-48). The richest colouristic palette comprises olive-green, red-brown and greyish-white hues, as well as deep dark-blue, green and turquoise colours. Raised figures of animals, and gracefully and carefully painted shoots and leaves on hexagonal and octagonal tiles are covered with thin coat of gold (4, p. 45).

Pictorial narration is based on the prevalence of zoomorphic themes and – very occasionally – anthropomorphic shapes. Intricate compositions include serpent-like bodies of beasts writhing in passionate, dynamic urge of dragons, lions, gazelles, flying cranes carrying twigs in their beaks, and Semurg birds, organically matching vegetable ornamentation and epigraphy. A sense of swiftly moving, as if living fabric of wall surfaces is enhanced by rhythmically positioned zoomorphic images, including elongated ceramic tiles featuring a procession of various beasts: an elephant, a wild boar, a unicorn (the Iran Bastam Museum, Tehran).

The development of decorative ceramics was accompanied by intensive technological and artistic search for harmonious colouring, pigments and the technique of their manufacturing. The appearance of vegetable ornamental compositions as a style of mind-vision and philosophical perception of the world constituted an entire epoch in architectural and artistic design of buildings. Pattern acquires precision and intricacy of lines; decorative arrangement becomes incomparably richer without destroying architectonic sectioning of planes and curved surfaces and, on the contrary, echoes it. Vegetable motifs made of flower buds, leaves and twigs merge into emotionally saturated rhythmical compositions of painted majolica tiles and mosaic sets deep in colour and shining with their transparent glazes.

Complicated and laborious technique of kashin mosaic reaches its evolutionary apogee in Gei-mosque d?cor (1465, Tebriz). Fitted with minute precision and meticulously performed mosaic sets of pure, resounding colour combinations constitute compositionally complex, florid lace of finest sets. Carefully fitted cut-outs of magically iridescent ochre, deep-brown, sapphire-blue, olive-green and cream-white colours merge into one precious, harmonious fabric of vegetable designs, joined by epigraphy in Arabic where naskh and sitte, along with kufi, are represented in several varieties of inscription. Also here, naturally entwined are ornamental insertions and epigraphic ligatures in raised gyaja; a high quality Tebriz marble is lavishly employed.

Monumental painting plays the main role in architectural-artistic solution for the interiors of primarily palace buildings, as well as of khamam, pavilions. Lavishly orchestrated harmony of polychromatic paintings had it own favourite range of themes and motifs: vegetable, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and multi-figure compositions. It should be emphasized that rich vegetable paintings remained the most common: these were trees and bushes with fabulously beautiful fruits, leaves and shoots; vases with flowers and buds of irises, tulips and roses. Qualitative peculiarities common to these compositions are reduced to their symmetry, streamlined and well-considered drawing, the absence of perspective in multi-figure compositions, and brightness of colour-structures (6, pp. 486-488). The layout of monumental paintings is governed by a complete system of plastic processing of walls, up to stalactite compositions. Wall architectonics takes the appearance of largely fragmented masses built upon an underlined vertical axis, which visually increased the height of the interior.

Venetian envoys were elated at the sight of luxurious reception apartments of Khasht-Bekhisht Uzun-Khasana palace in Tebriz and left a rhapsodic description: “…On the main hall ceiling, painted in gold, silver and ultramarine are all the battles that took place in Persia since long ago…, and the figures are so well depicted that they appear alive” (7, p. 8).

Whereas in the 14th century the influence of monumental painting on miniature was quite strong, by the 16th century this phenomenon goes in reverse, i.e. monumental painting evolves under immediate influence of miniature (7, p. 47). This, in particular, can be illustrated by the example of creative work of Mirza Ali, the son and disciple of Sultan Mukhammed (8, p. 28).

Miniature is stylistically related to monumental painting, and its themes are taken from artistic ideas of the epoch. Both miniature and murals were often performed by one master. Artistic solutions for Chekhel-Sutun palace in Isfahan were entrusted to one of the famous miniature artists of that time Muzaffar Ali, who created a series portrait and anecdotal paintings (9, p. 146). The image layout in the composition of the murals, in which “it is hardly possible not to discern features of miniature painting”, is immediately associated with miniature painting traditions – from interpretation of themes to how details are depicted (10, p. 215).

Splendid decorative qualities of gyaja were realized in artistic decoration of mihrabs in mosques and mausoleums with masterpieces of medieval decorative and applied art: raised epigraphic ligatures and rich multi-plane ornamental compositions (Juma mosque in Marand, 14th century, Azerbaijan; Khanegakh mausoleum in at Alinja-chai, 12th c., Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic). Quite distinct is Pir-Alaviyan mausoleum (12th c., Khamadan, South Azerbaijan), in which the “energy vibration” of the raised ornamental gyaja d?cor reaches magical force. For the purposes of greater decorative effect, gyaja acquired wide-ranging colour palette; take, for example, an outstanding piece of medieval architecture Oljaitau mausoleum (early 14th c., Sultanie, South Azerbaijan), in which gyaja ornaments are coloured in blue, green, brown, yellow, red and golden, and in Chelebi-ogly mausoleum the dominant colour range is grey-blue (11, p. 173).

At the basis of artistic expressivity of stone lies the effect of enchanting contrast of smooth masonry and few meticulously worked out ornamental details: graceful stalactites, captivating epigraphic ligatures and melodious ornamentation; but primarily it is sculpturally modelled portal compositions.

Experienced masons with inexhaustible imagination of artists created cornice profiles, smooth curves of lancet arch archivolts and architrave apertures, П-shaped framings of graceful portals, and masterfully cut carved shebeke, conchoid niches and stalactite compositions.

Artistic stone carving that produced succulent, often very fine-lined graceful vegetable motifs was performed with high, sometimes multi-plane relief, in some places reaching 5-6 cm with line thickness of 3-4 mm (Divan-khane portal; Shirvanshakh palace ensemble). It is concentrated in the most crucial sections of the portal composition design (12, p. 5).

All forms of rosettes received special recognition and became rather widespread: round, polygonal, filled with raised ornament and epigraphy. Quite unique is the portal solution of a mausoleum in Khachin-Tyurbetli, with traditional П-shaped framing in the form of twenty two figured rosettes with boldly-ornamented carving.

Calligraphic epigraphy of the Koran Lingua Sacra on architectural monuments can be regarded as art, as a special kind of artistic creation. Text makers, khattat, and those who cut the texts in stone, khakkak, aspired to maximal ornamentation of inscriptions. Kufi epigraphy was later replaced with naskh and suls; however, the form base remained the same – only inscription methods changed and diacritic symbols were introduced.

Decorative ornamentation of monumental structures in the architecture of medieval Azerbaijan reaches perfection, unfailingly following the set range of objectives linked to each individual building – the basis of every living environment.

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Raikha Amenzade

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