Arabesque: Wikis


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Arabesque pattern at the Alhambra

The arabesque is an artistic motif that is characterized by the application of repeating geometric forms and fancifully combined patterns; these forms often echo those of plants and animals.[1]Arabesques are, as their name indicates, elements of Islamic art often found decorating the walls of mosques. The choice of which geometric forms are to be used and how they are to be formatted is based upon the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many in the Islamic world, they concretely symbolize the infinite, and therefore uncentralized, nature of the creation of the one God (Allah). Furthermore, the Islamic Arabesque artist conveys a definite spirituality without the iconography of Christian art.

Mistakes in repetitions may be intentionally introduced as a show of humility by artists who believe only Allah can produce perfection, although this theory is disputed.[2][3][4]



Geometric artwork in the form of the Arabesques was not widely used in the Middle East or Mediterranean Basin until the golden age of Islam came into full bloom. During this time, ancient texts on Greek and Hellenistic mathematics as well as Indian mathematics were translated into Arabic at the House of Wisdom, an academic research institution in Baghdad. Like the later European Renaissance that followed, mathematics, science, literature and history were infused into the Muslim Islamic world with great, mostly positive repercussions.

The works of ancient scholars such as Plato, Euclid, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta were widely read among the literate and further advanced in order to solve mathematical problems which arose due to the Islamic requirements of determining the Qibla and times of Salah and Ramadan.[5] Plato's ideas about the existence of a separate reality that was perfect in form and function and crystalline in character, Euclidean geometry as expounded on by Al-Abbās ibn Said al-Jawharī (ca. 800-860) in his Commentary on Euclid's Elements, the trigonometry of Aryabhata and Brahmagupta as elaborated on by Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (ca. 780-850), and the development of spherical geometry[5] by Abū al-Wafā' al-Būzjānī (940–998) and spherical trigonometry by Al-Jayyani (989-1079)[6] for determining the Qibla and times of Salah and Ramadan,[5] all served as an impetus for the art form that was to become the Arabesque.

Description and symbolism

Arabesque art consists of a series of repeating geometric forms which are occasionally accompanied by calligraphy. Ettinghausen et al. describe the arabesque as a "vegetal design consisting of full...and half palmettes [as] an unending continuous which each leaf grows out of the tip of another."[7] To the adherents of Islam, the Arabesque are symbolic of their united faith and the way in which traditional Islamic cultures view the world.

Geometric arabesque tiling on the underside of the dome of the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz.

Two modes

There are two modes to arabesque art. The first recalls the principles that govern the order of the world. These principles include the bare basics of what makes objects structurally sound and, by extension, beautiful (i.e. the angle and the fixed/static shapes that it creates—esp. the truss). In the first mode, each repeating geometric form has a built-in symbolism ascribed to it. For example, the square, with its four equilateral sides, is symbolic of the equally important elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water. Without any one of the four, the physical world, represented by a circle that inscribes the square, would collapse upon itself and cease to exist. The second mode is based upon the flowing nature of plant forms. This mode recalls the feminine nature of life giving. In addition, upon inspection of the many examples of Arabesque art, some would argue that there is in fact a third mode, the mode of Arabic calligraphy.


An example of Arabic calligraphy

Instead of recalling something related to the 'True Reality' (the reality of the spiritual world), for the Muslim calligraphy is a visible expression of the highest art of all; the art of the spoken word (the transmittal of thoughts and of history). In Islam, the most important document to be transmitted orally is, of course, the Qur'an. Proverbs and complete passages from the Qur'an can be seen today in Arabesque art. The coming together of these three forms creates the Arabesque, and this is a reflection of unity arising from diversity (a basic tenet of Islam).


The arabesque can also be equally thought of as both art and science, some say. The artwork is at the same time mathematically precise, aesthetically pleasing, and symbolic. So due to this duality of creation, they say, the artistic part of this equation can be further subdivided into both secular and religious artwork. However, for many Muslims there is no distinction; all forms of art, the natural world, mathematics and science are all creations of God and therefore are reflections of the same thing - that is, God's will expressed through His Creation. In other words, man can discover the geometric forms that constitute the Arabesque, but these forms always existed before as part of God's creation, as shown in this picture.

Order and unity

There is great similarity between arabesque artwork from very different geographic regions. In fact, the similarities are so pronounced, that it is sometimes difficult for experts to tell where a given style of arabesque comes from. The reason for this is that the science and mathematics that are used to construct Arabesque artwork are universal.

Therefore, for most Muslims, the best artwork that can be created by man for use in the Mosque is artwork that displays the underlying order and unity of nature. The order and unity of the material world, they believe, is a mere ghostly approximation of the spiritual world, which for many Muslims is the place where the only true reality exists. Discovered geometric forms, therefore, exemplify this perfect reality because God's creation has been obscured by the sins of man.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Thompson, Muhammad. "Islamic Textile Art: Anomalies in Kilims". Salon du Tapis d'Orient. TurkoTek. Retrieved 25 August 2009.  
  3. ^ Alexenberg, Melvin L. (2006). The future of art in a digital age: from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness. Intellect Ltd. p. 55. ISBN 1841501360.  
  4. ^ Backhouse, Tim. ""Only God is Perfect"". Islamic and Geometric Art. Retrieved 25 August 2009.  
  5. ^ a b c Gingerich, Owen (April 1986), "Islamic astronomy", Scientific American 254 (10): 74, <>. Retrieved on 2008-05-18
  6. ^ O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Muadh Al-Jayyani", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews,  .
  7. ^ Richard Ettinghausen, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina, Islamic Art and Architecture, 650-1250. (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001), 66.

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

by Clark Ashton Smith

Like arabesques of ebony,
The cypresses, in silhouette,
Fantastically cleave and fret
A moon of yellow ivory.

Like orient lamps the rays illume
A leafy pattern manifold,
And all the field is overscrolled
With curiously figured gloom.

Like arabesques of ebony,
Or like Arabian lattices,
For ever seem the cypresses,
Before a moon of ivory.

PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain). Flag of the United States.svg

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ARABESQUE, a word meaning simply "Arabian," but technically used for a certain form of decorative design in flowing lines intertwined; hence comes the more metaphorical use of this word, whether in nature or in morals, indicating a fantastic or complicated interweaving of lines against a background. In decorative design the term is historically a misnomer. It is applied to the grotesque decoration derived from Roman remains of the early time of the empire, not to any style derived from Arabian or Moorish work. Arabesque and Moresque are really distinct; the latter is from the Arabian style of ornament, developed by the Byzantine Greeks for their new masters, after the conquests of the followers of Mahomet; and the former is a term pretty well restricted to varieties of cinquecento decoration, which have nothing in common with any Arabian examples in their details, but are a development derived from Greek and Roman grotesque designs, such as we find them in the remains of ancient palaces at Rome, and in ancient houses at Pompeii. These were reproduced by Raphael and his pupils in the decoration of some of the corridors of the Loggie of the Vatican at Rome: grotesque is thus a better name for these decorations than Arabesque. This technical Arabesque, therefore, is much more ancient than any Arabian or Moorish decoration, and has really nothing in common with it except the mere symmetrical principles of its arrangement. Pliny and Vitruvius give us no name for the extravagant decorative wall-painting in vogue in their time, to which the early Italian revivers of it seem to have given the designation of grotesque, because it was first discovered in the arched or underground chambers (grotte) of Roman ruins - as in the golden house of Nero, or the baths of Titus. What really took place in the Italian revival was in some measure a supplanting of the Arabesque for the classical grotesque, still retaining the original Arabian designation, while the genuine Arabian art, the Saracenic, was distinguished as Moresque or Moorish. So it is now the original Arabesque that is called by its specific names of Saracenic, Moorish and Alhambresque, while the term Arabesque is applied exclusively to the style developed from the debased classical grotesque of the Roman empire.

There is still much of the genuine Saracenic element in Renaissance Arabesques, especially in that selected for book-borders and for silver-work, the details of which consist largely of the conventional Saracenic foliations. But the Arabesque developed in the Italian cinquecento work repudiated all the original Arabian elements and devices, and limited itself to the manipulating of the classical elements, of which the most prominent feature is ever the floriated or foliated scroll; and it is in this cinquecento decoration, whether in sculpture or in painting, that Arabesque has been perfected.

In the Saracenic, as the elder sister of the two styles, which was ingeniously developed by the Byzantine Greek artists for their Arabian masters in the early times of Mahommedan conquest, every natural object was proscribed; the artists were, therefore, reduced to making symmetrical designs from forms which should have no positive meaning; yet the Byzantine Greeks, who were Christians, managed to work even their own ecclesiastical symbols, in a disguised manner, into their tracery and diapers; as the lily, for instance. The cross was not so introduced; this, of course, was inadmissible; but neither was the crescent ever introduced into any of this early work in Damascus or Cairo. The crescent was itself not a Mahommedan device till after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 A.D. The crescent, as the new moon, was the symbol of Byzantium; and it was only after that capital of the Eastern empire fell into the hands of the Turks that this symbol was adopted by them. The crescent and the cross became antagonist standards, therefore, first in the 15th century. And the crescent is not an element of original Moorish decoration.

The Alhambra diapers and original Majolica (Majorca) ware afford admirable specimens of genuine Saracenic or Moorish decoration. A conventional floriage is common in these diapers; tracery also is a great feature in this work, in geometrical combinations, whether rectilinear or curvilinear; and the designs are rich in colour; idolatry was in the reproduction of natural forms, not in the fanciful combination of natural colours. These curves and angles, therefore, or interlacings, chiefly in stucco, constitute the prominent elements of an Arabian ornamental design, combining also Arabic inscriptions; composed of a mass of foliation or floral forms conventionally disguised, as the exclusion of all natural images was the fundamental principle of the style in its purity. The Alhambra displays almost endless specimens of this peculiar work, all in relief, highly coloured, and profusely enriched with gold. The mosque of Tulun, in Cairo, A.D. 876, the known work of a Greek, affords the completest example of this art in its early time; and Sicily contains many remains of this same exquisite Saracenic decoration.

Such is the genuine Arabesque of the Arabs, but a very different style of design is implied by the Arabesque of the cinquecento, a purely classical ornamentation. This owes its origin to the excavation and recovery of ancient monuments, and was developed chiefly by the sculptors of the north, and the painters of central Italy; by the Lombardi of Venice, by Agostino Busti of Milan, by Bramante of Urbino, by Raphael, by Giulio Romano, and others of nearly equal merit. Very beautiful examples in sculpture of this cinquecento Arabesque are found in the churches of Venice, Verona and Brescia; in painting, the most complete specimens are those of the Vatican Loggie, and the Villa Madama at Rome and the ducal palaces at Mantua. The Vatican Arabesques, chiefly executed for Raphael by Giulio Romano, Gian Francesco Penni, and Giovanni da Udine, though beautiful as works of painting, are often very extravagant in their composition, ludicrous and sometimes aesthetically offensive; as are also many of the decorations of Pompeii. The main features of these designs are balanced scrolls in panels; or standards variously composed, but symmetrically scrolled on either side, and on the tendrils of these scrolls are suspended or placed birds and animals, human figures and chimeras, of any or all kinds, or indeed any objects that may take the fancy of the artist. The most perfect specimens of cinquecento Arabesque are certainly found in sculpture. As specimens of exquisite work may be mentioned the Martinengo tomb, in the church of the Padri Riformati at Brescia, and the facade of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli there, by the Lombardi; and many of the carvings of the Château de Gaillon, France - all of which fairly illustrate the beauties and capabilities of the style.

See also Wornum, Analysis of Ornament (1874). (R. N. W.)

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