Islamic Illuminated Manuscripts

Islam, one o f the world's great religions, emerged from Muhammad's teachings as recorded in the Quran. This sacred book forms the divine authority for religious, social, and civil life in Islamic societies stretching south from the Baltic Sea to equatorial Africa, and eastward from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of manuscript copies of the Quran have been made, from small pocket-sized versions to lavishly ornamented imperial editions. Muhammad called upon his followers to learn to read and write, and calligraphy quickly became an important tool for religion and government. His advocacy of women's literacy resulted in many important female calligraphers and scholars. A love of books permeates Islamic cultures; libraries were larger in Islamic regions and manuscript production was far more prolific than in Europe. From the eighth to the fifteenth century CE, Islamic science was without peer, and over ten thousand scientific manuscripts from this epoch survive.


Islamic Illuminated Manuscript


Islamic manuscript decoration emerged from modest origins. Early calligraphers who wrote seventh and eighth century copies of the Quran made their vowel marks ornate and drew rosettes to separate verses. Over the centuries, ornamentation became increasingly elaborate, with intricate geometric and arabesque designs filling the space to become transcendental expressions of the sacred nature of the Quran. Geometric shapes containing calligraphy are surrounded by rhythmic organic designs ranging from plant forms to abstract arabesques.

Figurative illustrations were not utilized because Islamic society embraced the principle of aniconism, which is religious opposition to representations of living creatures. This was based on a belief that only God could create life and that mortals should not make figures of living things or create images that might be used as idols. While this principle was strictly upheld in many Muslim areas, such as North Africa and Egypt, pictures were tolerated in some Islamic regions as long as they were restricted to private quarters and palace harems.


Islamic Illuminated Manuscript


Probably before the year 1000 ce, miniature paintings appeared in Persian books and became an important aspect of book illumination. Artists in Persia (now Iran) developed the defining attributes of illustrated Islamic manuscripts because the ruling shahs patronized the creation of masterworks containing elaborate detail, precise patterns, and vibrant color. Some of the finest Islamic manuscripts were designed during the Safavid dynasty (1 502-1736); the influence of Persian artists spread to the Ottoman Empire (a domain founded by Turkish tribes, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and ruled a vast empire for over four hundred years) and to the Mughals (also called Moguls- Muslims from Mongol, Turkey, and Persia who conquered and ruled India from 1526 to 1857). Mughal emperors established a major school of Islamic illumination after bringing Persian artists to India in the sixteenth century to train local artists. Birds, animals, plants, and architecture native to the region were incorporated into Mughal manuscripts.

The professional and personal life of Indian Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628- 58), who built masterworks of architecture, including the Taj Mahal, is recounted and illustrated with full-page and double-page illustrations. Calligraphic writing is contained in intricate panels. Open spaces between the lines of calligraphy are filled with organic gold configurations determined by the word shapes. These negative spaces become concrete forms. Text and illustrations are framed with multiple lines and surrounded by complex ornamental borders ranging from floral arabesques to repetitive patterns and architectonic geometric structures.

The meticulously painted illustrations are in the great tradition of Persian painting, which was primarily a book illustrator's art dating from the 1300s. Space is flat and shallow; ground and floor planes are parallel to the picture plane. Figures and objects are described by meticulous contour lines containing flat, or sometimes subtly modulated, planes of color. Tonal modulation and light-and-shadow patterns are usually minimal or nonexistent. Architecture is defined by geometric planes. Intricate decorative patterns are applied to carpets, clothing, and structures. Plants are drawn as schematic stylizations, with careful attention to detail and a profuse repetition of blossoms and leaves. Chromatic energy is achieved through warm/cool and light/dark color combinations.


Islamic Illuminated Manuscript


Islamic manuscript design had a long and varied tradition, with numerous schools, influences, and aesthetic approaches. Geographic proximity to Asia in the east and Europe in the west permitted an assimilation of design ideas from other cultures. For over a thousand years Islamic manuscripts maintained traditions of artistic excellence, with production continuing long after typographic printing completely replaced manuscript books elsewhere. Major works were commissioned as recently as the nineteenth century.

Meggs, Philip B., and Alston W. Purvis. Meggs' History of Graphic Design. 6th ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2016, pp. 63-56.

2018 History Graphic Design

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