Islamic art is probably the most available material manifestation of the complicated and multifaceted culture, which appears mysterious to a foreigner. The object which impressed me the most is the bowl with geometric and vegetal embellishment, attributed to the 10th century. The bowl was produced in Northeastern Iran of transparent glaze with white slip covering. Nevertheless, the beauty of this art of glaze is not its primary characteristic, as the bowl has also religious significance, as it was used mainly during Islamic holidays when serving the table with soft drinks. Its historical importance is dictated by the fact that this object embodies the most prominent aspects of contemporary life in Muslim society.
First of all, the ornament symbolizes the internal wisdom of Islamic art: book printing was extremely costly at that time, so the hard-line Muslims searched for another way of sharing knowledge and their reflections upon the holy teaching, so fine art finally became the means of transmitting information. It is known that this particular bowl was created on Iranian mullah’s individual request, and its vegetal and geomantic decorations were the metalanguage that conveyed the message concerning the wisdom and piousness of its owner.
In fact, manual art was a connection, which enabled the contemplation on Allah – primarily by using the high quality materials the Lord created on the Earth. Furthermore, the work of glaze seems to reflect the artisan’s personality, who explains through symbols that the holy crafter is most proficient and skillful, so this humble attempt to depict the faith and elaborate the image is incomparable to the magnificent Lord’s works.
“From an Islamic perspective art consists in fashioning objects in a manner conformable to their nature, for that nature has a virtual content of beauty, since it comes from God; all one has to do is release that beauty in order to make it apparent.” (Paradopoulo, p.90). As one can assume, the canons of aesthetics and material beauty can be learned though the examination of the object (for instance, the use of delicate fragile materials), moreover, spiritual splendor is also depicted as a circle in the middle of the bowl, which was to represent the natural magnificence of human transcendence and wisdom, probably possessed by its owner.
Furthermore, in order to show his (and typically Islamic) obedience to God, the author remembers Him in each single line of the ornament, drawing the symbols of human need for approaching to the Lord’s grace on the different partitions, which create the illusion of circling around the core.
The term “baraka” (spiritual blessing) (Bloom and Blair, 1994) perfectly fits into the explanation of the symbolic meaning of the object. Spiritual blessing is the reward for virtuousness, a ‘top prize’, which saturated even the daily routines of an average Muslim’s life. The remembrance about baraka was more available to affluent religious leaders and middle-class mercenaries, because in Islamic context it should necessarily be a material object, an analogy of Christian medallion (Bloom and Blair, 1994).
In addition, the work of art involves another important principle of Islamic art, known as futuwaah (ibid). This is the golden standard of artwork, which allowed distinguishing between rough and top-class objects. The term ‘futuwaah’ derived from ‘fata’, or youth, the new generation, which introduces the most precise and appropriate religious dogmas in terms of Islamic fundamentalism: “Futuwwah being, on the highest level, the art by means of which we become ourselves and gain full awareness of our primordial nature. This is essentially subservience to God in recognizing and acknowledging the covenant made between God and man” (Papadopoulo, 1979, p.361). The craftwork therefore was produced by caring hands of faithful artisan, who used all his inspiration and spiritual depths to create a unique, inimitable piece of art.
The bowl ornamentation suggests that each piece of art is supposed to contain a small universe, a microcosm – this the circle in the middle of the bowl signify Allah’s rule, the secreted hypostasis of the Lord, which is forbidden in terms of exploration. Furthermore, the geometrical figure means fulfillment, harmony and completeness – and ideally harmonious absolute. The fragmented ornaments around the core symbolize the Lord’s knowledge, transmitted directly to human individuals and presented in the Koran.
Therefore, each of the segments demonstrates the certain link between ‘inferior’ human and the Lord, the strictly drawn boundaries means that God’s grace and benevolence is limited and at any time can turn into dissatisfaction with one’s misdeed. The vegetal element, resembling a cross, manifests the Lord’s determinative power as positions Him as a last resort of appellation. To sum up, the embellishment of the object provides a miniature model of Muslim society and both transmission and ‘storage’ of holy wisdom.
As it has been mentioned, this work of art is a mini-excurse into contemporary values and beliefs and clearly exemplifies the mode of thinking and imagining, attributed to typical Muslims. As Grabar (1978) and Burckhardt (1976) argue, each work is addressed to Islamic deity and encompasses the embodiment of human self, the domination and power of Allah and the discourse between human-being and the Lord – primarily through Mohammad the Prophet.
Even though the size of the bowl is comparatively small (its diameter is about 23 centimeters), an inquisitive mind can draw prominent images of religious submission, social order, which disregarded secularity, and finally – the deprivation of human ego as a method of elimination selfishness. As the scholars assume (Grabar, 1978; Burckhardt, 1976), Islamic mentality is to great extent noticeable in such works of art, so that they represent human consciousness which emerged in Early Islamic period.
To sum up, the work of art I have described is both a medallion, a sign of god’s blessing, as well as the reproduction of Islamic religious ideas. The bowl is not merely a precious element of the exposition, but an insight into the new and barely known mentality and consequently the step towards comprehending Islamic civilization.
- Bloom, J. and Blair, S. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
- Burckhardt, T. Art of Islam: Language and Meaning. New York : Schocken Books, 1976.
- Grabar, O. The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven, and London: Yale University Press, 1978.
- Papadopoulo, A. Islam and Muslim Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Islamic Art. Retrieved October 1, 2008, from <www.metmuseum.org/Works_Of_Art/islamic_art>