Thursday , March 22 2018

Angling for art, heart and soul – the importance of geometry in Islamic decorative art

KUWAIT CITY, Nov 19: Professor Giovanni Curatola from the University of Udine, Italy discussed calligraphy and geometry in Islamic religious art in a lecture that tried to find a simple explanation for the love of geometrical patterns that Muslim artists cultivated everywhere in their experience. The lecture was held at Yarmouk Cultural Centre on Monday evening, as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.

Prof Curatola is the author of more than one hundred scientific publications on Islamic art. He curated the first general exhibition on Islamic Art in Italy in 1993. He also curated the exhibition al-Fann — Art from the Islamic Civilization, The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, and, together with the curator Salam Kaoukji, he organised the loan of 250 objects from the collection to the MFAH in Houston, USA.

In his lecture, he pointed out that Islamic decorative arts are mainly based on three recurrent devices: calligraphy, arabesques i.e. abstract floral patterns, and geometry. While touching briefly on calligraphy, he delved deeper into the geometric arts which in particular appears to have been much developed throughout all ages and lands touched by Muslim rule. He offered ample examples of architectural decoration in buildings scattered from Spain to Central Asia as well as those found in many artefacts such as pottery, glass, metalwork, textiles, and book bindings.

Professor Curatola began his lecture showing various examples of calligraphy from pages of the Holy Quran with an anecdote of his early experience with Islamic art, when he questioned the reason behind the elongated forms of Arabic letters and discovered that it had less to do with pronunciation and everything to do with the imagery, beauty and rhythm of the lettering.

He shared his opinion that the definitive iconography of Islam would have to be calligraphy with the word Allah. Not only for its religiosity but also for its beauty. He shared other examples from Holy Qurans from Riyadh, and the oldest printed Holy Quran in the world in 1538, found in Venice today. While there are many discussions around its origins, he put forth the idea that it was perhaps Venetian merchants who printed it with the idea of making money.

He noted that while it was not a bad idea in itself, in 1538, it was a bit too early for it to be successful since the idea of printing sacred text was considered blasphemous. “There is nothing more pious than writing a copy of the Holy Quran with your hand. Even today this is valued”, he shared.

He discussed the genius of Ibn Muglah, a powerful man and Wazir under three different Caliphs, although a great Statesman he is now remembered most for developing a system of writing Arabic letters.

The Arabic system of lettering ascribed to geometric and mathematical rules to adhere to proportions. As a result of these rules of writing, Prof Curatola shared, at the end of the 10th century calligraphy flourished. It then became fashionable to have the exercise of calligraphy, he revealed.

“With calligraphy, you can do whatever you want in a way and if we speak of contemporary art in this part of the world,” he pointed to recent contemporary works like that of Che Guevara from an artist in Uzbekistan, Maghrabi Basmala of Ahmed Maluch, and Jamal Boullata’s silkscreen that all attest to the beauty of proportions.

He took a moment during his lecture to point to the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus in Syria in order to remind the audience never to forget the country. In the Friday Mosque of Isfahan’s ceiling of the Iyan Sud, he pointed to the presence of inscriptions and geometry displayed together with the use of the coloured brick placed in a pattern of letters. Here, calligraphy becomes geometry.

Moving to the Abbasid Palace in Baghdad, he pointed to the mukarnas as being important geometric structures. He gave the example of a mausoleum in Iran with a simple brick decoration of geometric pattern. “When you think about art, you must be simple. It is the most difficult thing to be simple. Everybody can put things on and make it more complex but it is difficult to take away to be perfect”, he remarked.

He moved to Cairo, Egypt, pointing to the view of the west wall of the Sultan Hassan mosque, he highlighted its very rational architecture from the mid fourteenth century. In the dome of the mausoleum of Sultan Baybars, he drew attention to the very difficult geometric pattern. He shared the artists who were capable of such masterpiece reflected the greatness of their society. “When you have great artists, you have a great society and environment, good organisation. It is not easy to have a skilled workshop of architecture, source the material, design the structure, and mount the stones well.”

Inside the funerary complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay, Prof Curatola shared, one can find all what you need about Islamic decorative arts — an octagonal shape that lends geometry, arabesque and an inscription in the center. “It is a perfect synthesis of what we have in mind”, he stated.

He provided another example from Cairo, of a pattern with a star in the middle, hypnotic in their design. He shared that in the contemplation of geometric decoration, in its repetitions and infinities, the onlooker loses consciousness and enters another dimension, he becomes more close to God. “In Geometry, the more you look inside, the more it helps you to pray. This is the reason for widespread geometric decoration in Islamic arts. Its philosophy brings you to the point of forgetting the self and aids concentration.”

Similarly, at the shrine of Shaikh Abd al-Samad, Natanz in Iran, the roundels draw the observer in. He pointed out that Islamic art is Kaleidoscopic. It is fantastic, interactive, intermittent, one over the other in perfect idea of geometry.

He shared inscriptions and patterns from various other examples, such as a square fountain with square kufic that has writing and geometry which is simple yet effective. Tomb of Bayazid Bastami in Bastam has a swastika pattern which he pointed out is one of the most ancient patterns in the world. The letters and inscriptions created by anonymous artists in repetition form astonishing decorations in two level decoration.

He went back to a piece from Italy, marble on the floor of the church, that was upside down and only discovered during renovations. “All we have seen has not a beginning and not an end. They are only part of something. In a way, that means that the pattern can be repeated forever and the pattern is infinite. Only God is infinite.

When you show geometry that has no beginning and an end, it shows God. It only suggests the idea of God, and is not a representation. For this reason I think that the true religious art of Islam is geometric art for its allusion to God. It is the essence of what we see everywhere. Man can only grasp a section of this, only God is infinite.”

He concluded his lecture with various examples of geometric decoration in Islamic art from India, Iran, Mamluk carpets, tiles from the Al Sabah collection, Stucco decorations, incense burners, mashrabiyas and panels, marble fountains, floor decorations, tiles and interlocking elements, ending with the detail of a tile pattern in the mosque of Istanbul that contains one whole medallion and two cut medallions for the purpose of continuity.

By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff

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