Art Without Pictures

With visual representation being considered an attempt to compete with Allah’s power of creation, the ornamentation of the Koran was restricted to plants and abstract designs only. Calligraphy therefore took centre stage to bring beauty to the page. Through the dissemination of the Koranic texts, calligraphy in the 8th or 9th century became a form of art in itself as well as a key aspect of the Islamic art tradition. In the Middle Ages, calligraphic expertise was even deemed a princely virtue.

The Koran being the direct revelation of Allah’s words, the accuracy and clarity of the written word were of the highest importance. However, since Arabic script only records consonants, dots and diacritic marks were introduced in Koranic manuscripts as vowels to ensure the correct reading and identification of words and to facilitate the pronunciation.

With centuries of mutual influence shared with the Far East and the West, the depicting of people and animals gradually became acceptable in secular context, although 3D effects such as shadows were not. However, the second half of the 20th century saw a major endeavour towards a revival of the Islamic art tradition and calligraphy regained prominence as a characteristic element of the Islamic visual culture. Arabic letters have since been transformed into a modern visual language through various styles: purely calligraphic compositions, combination of calligraphy and figurative motifs or even complete abstract use of individual elements of scripts.

Today, artists create their own calligraphic style and many combine it with other abstract elements, using the visual aspect of the written word to symbolise what other cultures picture more directly and figuratively. The strong return of letters and words from the Islamic tradition has thus created a leit-motif through past and present in the Islamic culture.

Photos: Bottle and table taken at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery,,,


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