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The Concept Of Decoration in Islamic architecture
Decoration is a major unifying factor in Islamic architecture and design. For 13 centuries, writes Dalu Jones in a very interesting and informative essay entitled "Surface, Pattern and Light" (in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell), decoration has linked buildings and objects from all over the Islamic world -- from Spain to China to Indonesia. Notes Jones, "Islamic art is an art not so much of form as of decorative themes that occur both in architecture and in the applied arts, independently of material, scale and technique. There is never one type of decoration for one type of building or object; on the contrary, there are decorative principles that are pan-Islamic and applicable to all types of buildings and objects at all times (whence comes the intimate relationship in Islam between all the applied arts and architecture). Islamic art must therefore be considered in its entirety because each building and each object embodies to some extent identical principles. Though objects and art differ in quality of execution and style, the same ideas, forms and designs constantly recur." Because little furniture is traditionally used for daily life in Islam, decoration contributes to the creation of a sense of continuous space that is a hallmark of Islamic architecture. Writes Jones, "The layers of surface decoration are increased and the complexity of visual effects enriched by the use of carpets and cushions, which often reflect the same decorative schemes as those found on walls and ceilings. Floors and ceilings contribute to the fluidity of space by the nature of their decoration, since they are often patterned in the same manner as the walls; sometimes, in the case of floors, the decoration actually reproduces carpets. The tomb of I'timad ad-Dawla in Agra, for example, has an inlaid marble floor that exactly reproduces the designs of Mughal carpets."
Jones notes that to the West, Islamic design may seem restricted to two dimensions but that the very character of Islamic design implies three-dimensional possibilities. For example, the interlacing designs, often accompanied by variations in color and texture, create the illusion of different planes. Through the use of reflecting and shining materials and glazes, the repetition of designs, the contrasting of textures and the manipulation of planes, Islamic decoration becomes complex, sumptuous a nd intricate. It is an art of repose, Jones adds, where tensions are resolved. Jones states that, regardless of form, material or scale, this concept of art rests on a basic foundation of calligraphy, geometry and, in architecture, the repetition and multiplication of elements based on the arch. "Allied and parallel to these are floral and figural motifs," Jones writes. "Water and light are also of paramount importance to Islamic architectural decoration as they generate additional layers of patterns and -- just as happens with surface decoration -- they transform space. "Space is defined by surface and since surface is articulated by decoration, there is an intimate connection in Islamic architecture between space and decoration. It is the variety and richness of the decoration, with its endless permutations, that characterizes the buildings rather than their structural elements, which are often disguised. Many devices typical of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example, muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect and refract light]-- are explained by a desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing)."
Jones points to the Taj Mahal as an example of how the feeling of continuous space is created in Islamic architecture through the multiplication of given patterns and architectural elements. Arches and squinches of different types and scale are employed for both structural and decorative purposes.

"Dominated by the main dome," Jones writes, "each facade of the building has two tiers of three arched niches hollowed out of the principal mass. The portals in the center of each side are but a magnification of these niches. They are in their turn each filled by miniatures of themselves, the muqarnas. The smaller-domed pavilions on the upper part of the building rest on open arches that echo the blind arches of the platforms on which the whole building rests. Each element of the decoration therefore reproduces a structural element....

"Another example of the conceptual basis of much Islamic decoration is given by the floor decoration of the Taj Mahal which, with its rippled effect, suggests that the tomb is set in a tank of water. The decoration... does not imitate the water... in precise details, but it conveys the idea of water... (I)t creates a situation, a 'landscape of the mind,' a subtler environment than any aturalistic rendering."
Elements of DecorationElements of Decoration

This section summarizes Jones' list of the elements that make up Islamic decoration,

  • Calligraphy : Because of its role in recording the word of God, calligraphy is considered one of the most important of the Islamic arts. Nearly all Islamic buildings have some type of surface inscription in the stone, stucco, marble, mosaic and/or painting. The inscription might be a verse from the Qur'an, lines of poetry, or names and dates.

    Like other Islamic decoration, calligraphy is closely linked to geometry. The proportions of the letters are all governed by mathematics. Inscriptions are most often used as a frame along and around main elements of a building like portals and cornices. An inscription also might be contained in a single panel. Sometimes single words such as Allah or Mohammed are repeated and arranged into patterns over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic texts might appear in pierced cartouches, providing a pattern for light filtering through windows.

  • Geometry : Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to a degree of complexity and sophistication previously unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous generation of pattern. "The superb assurance of the Islamic designers is demonstrated by their masterful integration of geometry with such optical ef fects as the balancing of positive and negative areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and underpassing strapwork, and a skillful use of color and tone values.
    "...More than any other type of design (geometric patterns) permitted an interrelationship between the parts and the whole of a building complex, the exterior and the interior spaces and their furnishings."
  • Floral patterns : Islamic artists reproduced nature with a great deal of accuracy. Flowers and trees might be used as the motifs for the decoration of textiles, objects and buildings. In the Mughal architectural decoration of India, artists were inspired by European botanical drawings, as well as by Persian traditional flora. Their designs might be applied to monochrome panels of white marble, with rows of flowering plants exquisitely carved in low relief, alternating with delicately tinted polychrome inlays of precious and hard stones, Jones notes.
    The arabesque (geometricized vegetal ornament) is "characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem," writes Jones. "This limitless, rhythmical alternation of movement, conveyed by the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces a design that is balanced and free from tension. In the arabesque, perhaps more than in any other design associated with Islam, it is clear how the line defines space, and how sophisticated three-dimensional effects are achieved by differences in width, color and texture...."
"The underlying geometric grids governing arabesque designs are based on the same mathematical principles that determine wholly geometric patterns...."
  • Figures and animals: Because the creation of living things that move -- that is, humans and animals -- is considered to be in the realm of God, Islam discourages artists from producing such figures through art. Nevertheless, a certain amount of figural art can be found in the Islamic world, although it is mainly confined to the decoration of objects and secular buildings and to miniature paintings. Figural sculpture is quite rare in Islam.
  • Light : For many Muslims (and non-Muslims), light is the symbol of divine unity. In Islamic architecture, light functions decoratively by modifying other elements or by originating patterns. With the proper light, pierced facades can look like lacy, disembodied screens, Jones notes. Light can add a dynamic quality to architecture, extending patterns, forms and designs into the dimensions of time. And the combination of light and shade creates strong contrasts of planes and gives texture to sculpted stone, as well as stocked or brick surfaces.
  • Water : In hot Islamic climates, the water from courtyard pools and fountains cools as it decorates. Water can not only reflect architecture and multiply the decorative themes, it can also serve as a means of emphasizing the visual axes. Like the images they mirror, Jones writes, pools of water are immutable, yet constantly changing; fluid and dynamic, yet static.
Islamic decoration and the West

To the untrained Western eye, Islamic decoration often appears stultifying or excessive in its richness. One exception to this school of thought was the 19th-century British scholar and architect Owen Jones. In The Grammar of Ornament (as quoted in "Surface, Pattern and Light"), he writes that the first principle of architecture is to decorate construction and never to construct decoration. Ornamentation that is constructed falsely, he adds, can never achieve beauty or harmony. In regards to Islamic decoration he writes,

"(W)e never find a useless or superfluous ornament; every ornament arises quietly and naturally from the surface decorated."