First of all I’ll begin this article with an apology. Last month’s article was so full of doom and gloom I must really have been down in the dumps when I wrote it! Nevertheless, we move onwards and upwards. March is the heralding of springtime, there are fresh flowers growing everywhere, baby animals being born, and the weather recently is really backing up my point. I hope this article reflects the weather of the last few days in being sunny and warm and bright.
This article is a little different from previous ‘Artists of the Month’ in that it is not actually about a specific artist at all. In fact, one might even go as far as to say it’s not even about art. Technically I suppose the topic of this article is more about architecture and decoration (which I believe to be classed as ‘art’, but that depends on your definition of art which is a big question for a later time). Anyway, you all must be on the edge of your seats anticipating what this month’s article is about.
My inspiration for this topic really stems from my mother who, for the past few months, has been doing courses on Islamic Art. The flames of this fire were then fanned by a series of lectures on the art and architecture of the Safavid empire courtesy of St Andrews’ own Art History department. The reason I specify the term ‘decoration’ is because I’ll be talking mostly about tiling and how it was used to decorate. It’s also important to note that in the creation and decoration of buildings, they tended to look at the building as a whole, there wasn’t much appreciation for a singular designer or architect and therefore I cannot write this article about a singular artist.
In some interpretations Islam, as you may know, they are prohibited from producing images of animate beings as it is a form of idolatry. Therefore, artists would rely heavily of repeating patterns with vegetal, geometric or floral designs. These infinite and recurring motifs are sometimes interpreted to represent the infinite power of god. Additionally, if you take a close look at these designs you can find small imperfections. These are artists showing their humility, as only god can create perfection. I chose this topic for this month as I think we can see these infinite, recurring patters and floral motifs as representative of the life cycle, beginning again in springtime.
Of course, the term ‘Islamic Art’ does not solely refer to tiling and the Safavid empire of 1501-1736 Persia, but it spans over 1400 years, several different areas and several different art forms. For the purpose of this article I’ll be sticking mainly to tiling, specifically the technique of Girih. Girih are geometric patterns used in Islamic architecture and handicraft items that consist of angled lines that interlace to form a larger, repetitive, interlocking piece. The form flourished between 1000 and 1500 before decreasing in popularity.
Personally, I think it’s impossible to look at the Shah Nematollah Vali Shrine and not be completely bowled over by its impressiveness. The star motif is common in Islamic designs, you can see how it repeats itself across the dome. This design includes 5, 7, 9, 12 and 11 point stars. The design is created through drawing a number of geometrically accurate and measured shapes and it is incredibly difficult to achieve an end product that perfectly aligns without becoming distorted (believe me, I’ve tried – I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is to achieve on a curved surface). The complex of the shrine includes the mausoleum, a mosque, four courtyards and a reflecting pool. Shah Nematollah Vali was a renowned Iranian mystic and poet, who died in 1431 aged over 100. In 1436 the shrine was built and became a pilgrimage site.
Over the centuries the designs of these ceramic tiles became more and more intricate, combining floral and vegetal arabesques with Girih structures. These geometric patterns even became three-dimensional as part of the architecture of mosques and palaces.
I wholeheartedly encourage you to try and follow some templates and create your own geometric designs if it sounds like something you’d like to do. For me it’s an incredibly therapeutic and mesmerising process. I’ll leave you with some more examples of Islamic tiling and architecture, perhaps for inspiration, or just for casual viewing.