While the Western Medieval illumination is well known to the general public (and currently on display in the Louvre), and often highly regarded for its beauty, this is much less the case with illuminations from the countries of Islam. When we talk about Islamic art, we most often think of muqarnas mosques or the Alhambra than to iconography. In fact, the question of figurative art arises in Islam, and particularly the representation of the Prophet Muhammad. The exhibition offered by the BNF, Illuminations in the land of Islam, is welcome to tell us more.
Non-figurative art in Islam
Islamic calligraphy is one of the most famous aspects of non-figurative art in Islam, thanks to the graphic beauty of Arabic. One can indeed speak of art with regard to the writing of Arabic (emanation of God, according to the Moslems), and this as of the 8th century, with the writing known as “Kufic” (of Kufa, in Iraq) . This art was learned, from master to disciple, and evolved throughout the Middle Ages, until the 14th century with the Persians and the Ottomans. It obviously adorns the Korans, then manuscripts, but also architecture and ceramics. Specific albums are even devoted solely to calligraphy as such, as an art in its own right.
Another element of non-figurative art in Islam is geometry. Here, Islamic art is inspired by its predecessors, Byzantines or Sassanid Persians, to create its own art, the arabesque. The height of the arabesque was during the so-called classical period of the Abbasids, but continued to enrich itself thereafter, in the 16th century with the Safavids for example.
Illuminations are used to ornament both the Korans and secular works, to enhance the text or to help its understanding (in the Korans or the collections of hadith). The illumination of manuscripts, including bindings, is especially common among the Persians and Turks, mainly from the 14th century.
Figurative art in Islam
Because of the prohibition on representing animated beings in Islam, and especially religious figures like Muhammad, we are too inclined to believe that figurative art does not exist, or almost does not exist in the Muslim world. However, this is far from the case.
The oldest examples of figurative art that have come down to us date from the 11th century, which does not mean that they did not exist before, since those found are most often copies. This figurative art concerns above all scientific and technical manuscripts. The primary purpose is to aid in understanding the text, but these representations then become more narrative, under Persian and Turkish influence at the end of the Middle Ages.
Literature, poetry and historical chronicles are also seen accompanied by calligraphy, illuminations and miniatures, especially in the Persian world (including the famous Book of kings), then Ottoman in the 16th century. The Arab world is less concerned, especially after the Mongol shock of the 13th century, despite a revival under the Mameluks.
The representation of animate beings, and especially that of the prophets, is absent from religious works, but can be present in secular works. However, this only concerns non-Arab Islamic countries. The most numerous and richest examples are found among the Ilkhanids, a dynasty of the 13th century of Mongol origin, and among the Timurids, in the 15th century. In these accounts recounting the life of the Prophet or his mystical journey, Muhammad is clearly represented, which proves that spreading his image has not always been illegal ...
The exhibition Illuminations in the land of Islam
The exhibition offered by the BNF in its premises at the Richelieu library shows all aspects of this art. With a scenography inspired by the colors of the illuminations (blue and red), giving a very pleasant atmosphere.
The first part of the exhibition is devoted to non-figurative art and religious manuscripts, with many Korans of all forms (in scrolls, Italian style, etc.), as well as collections of hadith. Also on display are architectural elements with their arabesques.
The second part, for its part, reveals a wide variety of secular works: scientific, technical, poetic, literary and historical. It is here that we discover Islamic figurative art, including religious representations, as the exhibition ends with a 15th century Turkish manuscript in which the Prophet is present for his Night trip to Paradise.
The works presented cover the entire period from the 7th to the 19th century, with a greater number between the 14th and 17th centuries. The majority are from Persian Islam and Central Asia (Uzbekistan), especially secular works with figurative iconography.
This exhibition is therefore to be discovered, not only for the beauty of the works, but also to fill a too great lack of knowledge of Islamic art, in the context of a 21st century where the nuance leaves too much room for ignorance.
In the Louvre, Illuminations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Take the opportunity to visit the exhibition at the Louvre devoted to illuminations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Seventy European illuminations are presented there, covering the 11th-17th centuries, with some remarkable pieces, including several masterpieces by Jean Fouquet. The fact that the two exhibitions take place at the same time is the ideal pretext to compare the two arts.
- Exposure Illuminations in the land of Islam. Between abstraction and figuration, Richelieu Library, Mansart Gallery, July 7 to September 25, 2011. Information.
See the exceptional virtual exhibition.
- Exposure Illuminations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Louvre museum, Denon wing. Information.
- A. Vernay-Nouri, Illuminations in the land of Islam. Between abstraction and figuration, BNF, 2011.