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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Byzantine Art under Islam

The Byzantine empire‘s interaction with Islamic culture had a profound effect on its art. Islam’s rise and military success were the greatest threat to the stability of the empire and its territories. Mirroring the political climate, art became a medium of confrontation and cooperation between the two sides. The exchange and adaptation of motifs and genres became a common expression of power and individuality in the face of constantly changing relations between the two groups.

Islamic leaders were impressed by Byzantine mosaics and invited mosaicists to work on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Islamic artists used Christian models for iconography. Meanwhile, Byzantine artists adapted Islamic motifs for their own use. The First Church of the Monastery of Hosios Loukas, in Phokis, Greece, is decorated with patterns based on the Arab kufic script. The words do not mean anything, they are purely aesthetic, but they are clearly a nod to Islamic art. The batrashil (14.137), a silk liturgical vestment, shows an understanding of Syriac and Arabic, this time in its legible form—the artist even used Arabic to sign her name. The writing is embroidered onto the garment. A processional cross (1999.103) from Ethiopia is a fusion of wood sculpture and metalwork clearly inspired by Islamic shapes and patterns, which were most likely learned from textiles, ceramic vessels and tiles, and glass developed in the Muslim world. The illuminated gospel (1998.66) from Ethiopia also employs a design inspired by Islamic ornamentation known as harag, which means the tendril of a climbing plant.