Calligraphy in Islamic Art

  • Bowl emulating Chinese stoneware
    63.159.4
  • Folio from the Blue Quran
    2004.88
  • Tiraz textile fragment from an ikat shawl
    29.179.9
  • Bowl
    65.106.2
  • Bifolium from the Mashaf al-Hadina
    2007.191
  • Mirror
    42.136
  • Folio from a Quran manuscript
    29.160.23
  • Mosque lamp for the Mausoleum of Amir Aydakin al AlaI al-Bunduqdar
    17.190.985
  • Folio from a Quran manuscript
    42.63
  • Architectural tile with partial inscription
    2006.274
  • Panel of four calligraphic tiles
    1999.146
  • Fragment from a Quran manuscript
    1972.279
  • Helmet
    50.87
  • Dedicatory inscription from a mosque
    1981.320
  • Mosque-lamp-shaped vessel with Arabic inscriptions
    59.69.3
  • Tughra (Imperial Cipher) of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566)
    38.149.1
  • Calligraphic roundel inscribed Yaaziz (Oh Mighty!)
    1985.240.1
  • Calligraphic composition in the shape of a peacock: Folio from the Bellini Album
    67.266.7.8R

Essay

Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. It is significant that the Qur’an, the book of God’s revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted in Arabic, and that inherent within the Arabic script is the potential for developing a variety of ornamental forms. The employment of calligraphy as ornament had a definite aesthetic appeal but often also included an underlying talismanic component. While most works of art had legible inscriptions, not all Muslims would have been able to read them. One should always keep in mind, however, that calligraphy is principally a means to transmit a text, albeit in a decorative form.

Objects from different periods and regions vary in the use of calligraphy in their overall design, demonstrating the creative possibilities of calligraphy as ornament. In some cases, calligraphy is the dominant element in the decoration. In these examples, the artist exploits the inherent possibilities of the Arabic script to create writing as ornament. An entire word can give the impression of random brushstrokes, or a single letter can develop into a decorative knot. In other cases, highly esteemed calligraphic works on paper are themselves ornamented and enhanced by their decorative frames or backgrounds. Calligraphy can also become part of an overall ornamental program, clearly separated from the rest of the decoration. In some examples, calligraphy can be combined with vegetal scrolls on the same surface though often on different levels, creating an interplay of decorative elements.

Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001

Citation

Department of Islamic Art. “Calligraphy in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cali/hd_cali.htm (October 2001)

Further Reading

Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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