Art and Architecture

The Experience of Islamic Art on the Margins of Islam

This volume is the fifteenth publication in the Giorgio Levi Della Vida Conference Papers series, each of which contains the lecture presented by the recipient of the Giorgio Levi Della Vida Award for excellence in Islamic studies along with contributions by other scholars dedicated to a special topic. For the first time ever, in 1996 the award was presented to an art historian, Oleg Grabar, who chose “The Experience of Islamic Art on the Margins of Islam” as the theme of the fifteenth conference.

The crossing of boundaries by artifacts, decorative elements, or figural subjects from one cultural hemisphere into another, as well as the perception of the “inherited” monuments of other cultures, is a broad and still largely unexplored field. While studies following the wandering of motifs are quite numerous, the reasons for their selection and tacit integration into new contexts, along with their reshaping and revaluation, are not dealt with very often. Each of the five articles directs our attention to a particular border area of Islamic culture during a particular period, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present. Each contribution also approaches the question of how (regardless of the way) acquired Islamic objects and monuments were dealt with from a specific angle. The result is a small and very diverse collection of experiences that surely does not offer an overview of all responses to Islamic art. However, it convincingly demonstrates how revealing research on the cultural margins can be.

In his three-part lecture entitled “The Experience of Islamic Art,” Grabar first reviews his way into the field along different “Modes of Experience,” assessing what each of them contributed to his approach and understanding of the Islamic world and its art and architecture. His other two essays, “The So-called Mantle of Roger II” and “The Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina,” are dedicated to famous art works of Norman Sicily.

Placing the mantle’s origin in the private atmosphere of the women’s quarters of Roger II’s palace, he prefers an astrological interpretation of the representation on the mantle’s outside over its reading as a mere symbol of power. Latest research (Nobiles Officinae, exh. cat. Vienna 2004) does not contradict this interpretation. Concerning the perception of Islamic elements along with Byzantine and Latin ones, Grabar argues for a more integrative view of Norman art. For its part, the smooth incorporation of Islamic art’s motifs and objects was encouraged by their decorative value, which could be perceived as a purely formal quality when split apart from any possible messages. Moreover, if deemed fitting they could always be charged with new content.

This way of using the aesthetic qualities of Islamic art objects outside their realm generally worked, but sometimes unsettled its users when they suddenly realized an unwelcome substance connected to the admired form, as we learn in Robert S. Nelson’s “Letters and Language/Ornament and Identity in Byzantium and Islam.” As a highly valued work of art, a Mamluk tray was used in an important church ceremony only as long as the clergy did not know that its epigraphic decoration contained the name “Muhammad.” Obviously, apart from a common visual language of power and splendor, accepting luxury items from the Islamic world was sometimes helped by a lack of understanding. The decisive role in these persuasion processes, however, was played by the magic of ornament, including the ornamental effect of color. Nelson also points to one of the rare post-Umayyad examples, the dying of the parchment in a high-status manuscript, the famous Fatimid Blue Qur’an, where aesthetic persuasion worked the other way round in relationship with the Christian world.

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