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History of Art: Byzantine and Islamic Art

Welcome
back to our series on art history! From the lands of Ancient Rome, we now journey onward to experience the world of Byzantine and Islamic art. Let’s see how history significantly affected the art of this time.

Byzantine Art Mosaic
Byzantine art mosaic from the ceiling of St. Mark’s Basilica. Image by Wolfgang Moroder.

The Birth of a New Empire

Emerging from the depths of the Roman decline, the Byzantine Empire flourished with the emperor Constantine the Great leading the way in an accomplished religious state. After renaming the capital of his new imperial home in his honor, Constantine decorated the city with elaborate Greek statues, exquisite gold and marble art, and beautiful mosaics to glorify the Christian religion.

Diptych leaf with archangel
Byzantine diptych leaf with archangel from Constantinople.

The empire persevered until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Ottoman Turks, led by Mehmed the Conqueror, took over the once great capital. Its legacy in art remained, however, as many states in Eastern Europe continued to preserve its illustrious culture.

Byzantine art is divided into four distinct periods, with strong influence from its Christian religion and the Byzantines’ existing appreciation of traditional Roman art.

Byzantine’s Influence on Islamic Art

Like many cultures before it, the Byzantine Empire continued its reign, so to speak, as a major influencer in the areas of art and architecture long after its fall. Islamic territories, for instance, adopted a wide range of styles and incorporated elaborate mosaics on the walls of each structure, created from the hands of Christian artists.

Let’s take a look at its prominent influence in the following areas of art.

Architecture

One of the most notable areas where Byzantium’s legacy remained was its influence on architecture. 

Following the capture of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans incorporated its architectural elements and style into their structures, including the conversion of a traditional basilica, or Christian church, into their own distinguished mosque.

Most widely known for its heavy European stylistic influences is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built with similar measurements to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre located in Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock Mosque
Dome of the Rock. Image by Chris Flook.

It’s embellished with rich, gold mosaics that glitter with scenes of Islamic iconography. The beloved shrine also incorporates an octagonal structure often apparent in Byzantine architecture.

Impressed by the intricate details found in Christian mosaics, the reigning Muslim invaders were fully content with allowing their Christian counterparts to take a more hands-on approach to art at this time. This meant that some of the unique structures erected during this period were actually built by Christians using traditional Byzantine styles.

Suleiman Mosque modeled after Byzantine architecture
The Suleiman Mosque, modeled after Byzantine architecture.

Mosaics and Tiling

Inspired by the divinely created mosaics adorning the walls of classic Christian architecture, mosaics became another prominent art that transitioned into Islamic territory. 

Islamic Art Mosaic on Dome of the Rock
Islamic mosaics adorning the Dome of the Rock. Image by Godot.

One of the major differences between Byzantine and Islamic mosaics, however, was that beautiful scenes were often created without the use of human figures in Islamic art. This style, derived from this early era, would later encompass a new creative method of glazing brightly colored tiles for the interiors and exteriors of domed-shaped mosques.

Some mosaic-like tiles were laid out in a three-dimensional relief, decorated with single colors that were placed in an abstract geometric pattern. This method of tiled mosaics lasted for many years all the way up until the Mughal Empire, when the Mughals replaced this art in favor of decorations with semi-precious stones.

Mosiac Art Friday Mosque of Herat
Close up Islamic mosaic taken at the Friday Mosque of Herat. Image by Artacoana.

Rugs and Carpets

Another important art form that can not go without mention is the beautiful work of Oriental rugs and carpets used in everyday life, from traditional prayer rugs to cushions and floor coverings. 

Antique Persian Carpet
An antique Persian carpet. Image by Nazmiyal.

Using an art form deeply embedded in Islamic societies, carpet weavers produced beautiful, intricately made designs using straight lines and edges. They also incorporated the flowing loops and curves of the arabesque (the Islamic ornamental style) into many of their designs to celebrate their Islamic heritage, and these would later become a major feature in this unique style.

Earlier Islamic rugs were also greatly influenced by the styles of nearby regions and the increasing demand for prestigious carpets commissioned by European royalty.

Detail View of the Persian Mantes Carpet
Pictured here is a detailed view of the Mantes Persian carpet.

Ceramics

Lastly, ceramics played a huge role in the day-to-day happenings of Islamic art. Though earlier forms went without glaze, it is reported that the first incorporation of glazing techniques dated all the way back to the 8th century. 

Islamic Albarello Jar
Pictured here is an Albarello, a medicinal jar with roots in the Middle East.

Islamic pottery is heavily influenced by Chinese ceramics. With shapes and decorative motifs crossing over into their own styles, Islamic artists greatly admired their intricate designs.

They would continue to create ceramics following the methods of the Chinese until the Hispano-Moresque style emerged, which mixed Islamic and European elements together. It also produced new methods for creating these ceramics, involving an opaque, white tin-glaze, and painting with metallic lusters.

Islamic Art Ceramic Plate
An example of the Iznik-glazed pottery technique used widely in the 16th century. Image by Deror Avi.

So you see, although initially influenced heavily by the art of the Byzantine empire, Islamic art continued to evolve, incorporating the styles of many more regions and cultures into its designs.

Conclusion

All throughout history, when one empire declines, another emerges victoriously. And with each new empire birthed from the ashes of the fallen, art becomes an important marker for the illustrious history and culture of its time.

For more wondrous tales of Byzantine and Islamic art history, dive into the links below for further reading. And join me next month when we discuss the beautiful art from the enigmatic Asian region.

The following sources were also included in this article: