One of the strengths of the collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is collection of works from the ancient Near East. This paper examines two of those artifacts, discussing both their aesthetics properties as well as the historical, political and cultural context in which the two works were created. These works – although they provide only the barest glimpse into the complexities of cultural and religious dynamics of the region – nevertheless help us to understand the intimate and powerful way in which religion and culture are linked even today in the Middle East. (Images of the two works are appended to the end of this paper.)
The first work is two leaves taken from the Koran, the holy book of Islam made during the Abbasid caliphate during the ninth or tenth centuries. Even for a viewer who cannot read Arabic and who knows little about the tenets of this faith, the book is beautiful. It is certainly no coincidence that there is an emphasis in Islamic art on the importance of calligraphy as a form of artistic expression given that the realm of creative are is limited by the Islamic proscription against concrete images. While lesser Muslim artists have no doubt been stymied by their religion’s prohibition against depicting human-made or natural forms in art, greater artists have used this limitation as a challenge that they have risen to meet.
Calligraphy and other forms of artistic expression during the Abassid Caliphate reflected the fact that during this dynasty the boundaries of the Caliphate were no longer (and for the first time) no contiguous with Islam itself. As Wiet (1971) describes, during this dynasty both the Arab world to some extent became more splintered. This fracturing of the political power might also have fractured religious power and authority, but in fact the opposite was generally the case during this second major dynasty of the caliphate. As the capital was moved to the then-new city of Baghdad, the connections among citizens of the caliphate became increasingly based upon being members of the community of faith rather than upon any shared Arab nationality. This tended to result in an increase in the orthodoxy of belief as expressed in art.
Peterson argues (1995), quite convincingly, that the two single most important aspects of Islamic art are calligraphy (including calligraphic ornamentation) and the form of the mosque as it existed in different time periods. Museums are relatively limited in their ability to include mosques in exhibit – although they may include photographs of mosques, of course, as well as architectural elements of mosques that have been for one reason or another dismantled. However, they are free to exhibit Muslim and Arabic calligraphy, and the LACMA Near Eastern collection includes beautiful examples (such as this selection of pages from the Koran) of the ways in which the holy word of Allah is made beautiful through the work of calligraphers.
Although many world religions are centered on a written text (or a series of written texts), the relationship between Islam and the Koran (the primary written text of Islam) is especially close. This results in beautiful – although never lavish – manuscripts as well as the incorporation of texts copied from the Koran as a key form of ornamentation in a range of artistic forms from the decorative elements of architecture to pottery to mosaics (Zakariya 19).
The other work that is being considered here reflects this tendency to incorporate Koranic elements as decoration into otherwise plain (albeit at least in this case graceful) practical objects. This 10th-century earthenware ewer from Greater Iran bears around the bowl of the pitcher a passage from the Koran that might be interpreted to mean that someone might find the means to quench both physical and spiritual thirst by drinking from this ewer.
The work is a graceful one in terms of its form and line, while remaining clearly utilitarian. People from other religious and cultural traditions might find it difficult to understand why the artist who created this would want to include religious words – the Koran is supposed to be the actual words of Allah as given to humanity through the agency of the prophet Mohammed — on an ordinary object that would be set on a table and scrubbed out and quite possibly broken.
However, the use of Koranic scripture on a pitcher is in many ways no different at all from writing religious scriptures in copying the Koran itself: Each object within the world of the observant Muslim has the potential to reflect the holiness of the universe and the design of the humblest object, like the life of the humblest person, can fashioned to reflect the glory of the divine.
Peterson, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Wiet, Gaston. Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate. Norman: U. Of Oklahoma, 1971.
Zakiriya, Mohamed. The Calligraphy of Islam: Reflections on the State of the Art. Washington DC: Center for Contemporary Arabic Studies, 1990.
Allan, James. Islamic Ceramics. Oxford: Asmolean, 1995.
Two leaves from a manuscript of the Qur’an
Abbasid caliphate, ninth to tenth century
Ink and gold on parchment
5 3/4 x 18 1/8 in. (14.5 x 46 cm)
The Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky
Greater Iran, Nishapur or Samarqand
Medium & Technique
Earthenware, underglaze painted
1/4 x 6 3/4 in. (10.8 x 17.15 cm)
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