When Islamic art is everywhere and context is nowhere

There is a great misinformation and decontextualisation relating Islamic art. The first problem being what Islamic art is. Quite a tricky problem. But now I don’t want to concentrate on this particular issue: in this post when I talk about Islamic art I mean the art developed in an Islamic context…ok…it is even trickier. Let’s say that in this post ‘Islamic art’ is exactly what Google thinks it is:

Google Images: search words
Google Images: search words “Islamic art” (Oct 21st, 2014)

I have been thinking about contextualisation issues since I had a conversation on Twitter about it. Sometimes it seems that the context is solely Islam, so there is no problem putting together Umayyad palaces, Islamic Spain and Norman Sicily as in this tweet:

Link to Twitter status [last accessed: 6th Mar 2018]


If we look more closely at the images presented together in the tweet we find strikingly different contexts, one of which is not even “Islamic” in a strict sense…

1. Mosaic tree

Tree mosaic in Khirbat al-Mafjar (image from WikiCommons)
Tree mosaic in Khirbat al-Mafjar (image from WikiCommons)

The beautiful mosaic representing a tree comes from Khirbat al-Mafjar, the Umayyad palace in the Jordan Valley built in the first half of the 8th century. In the palace, the Byzantine and Sassanid influences in the decoration are well known, the first in mosaic and the latter in stucco carvings. Thus, how much Islamic is the tree mosaic? And to what extent is the whole complex Islamic? It is true that the Umayyads were Muslim, no doubt. But this is a palace, not a mosque. Also, the decoration type is clearly related to Byzantine art.

Fresco of a dancer, Qusayr 'Amra (image from WikiCommons)
Fresco of a dancer, Qusayr ‘Amra (image from WikiCommons)

2. Fresco

The fresco is to be found in Qusayr ‘Amra, another Umayyad palace, more specifically a bath-house, near Amman (Jordan). It was built between 712 and 715. Again the structure in itself seems to be related to eastern architecture and the frescoes that decorate the walls do pertain strictly to an Islamic setting.

Also in this case, ‘foreign’ (i.e. not Islamic) influence is clear, and the building does not have sacral connotation: it is not a mosque, it is not a shrine nor it is a madrasa.

Pyxid from Madinat al-Zahra (Cordoba), Louvre Museum (image from WikiCommons)
Pyxid from Madinat al-Zahra (Cordoba), Louvre Museum (image from WikiCommons)

3. Ivory pyxis

The pyxis comes from Madinat al-Zahra, the Umayyad citadel built near Cordoba in 936 by the newly proclaimed Umayyad caliphate of al-Andalus. The object is dated 968 and is now kept in Louvre.

The object is in an Islamic setting if we consider the word ‘Islamic’ as defining an environment in which Islam was the religion of the ruling class.

4. Cappella Palatina

The last (but not the least) image represents one of the many paintings found in Cappella Palatina, Palermo (Sicily). This is strange, isn’t it? Cappella Palatina (English: Chapel of the Palace) is an actual church, in the Norman Palace in Palermo. It was built in the first half of the 12th century and after eight years from its construction, in 1140, it was consecrated to St. Peter.

Particular from the muqarnas ceiling in Cappella Palatina, Palermo (image from WikiCommons)
Particular from the muqarnas ceiling in Cappella Palatina, Palermo (image from WikiCommons)

The muqarnas clearly derives from an Islamic influence and it is probable that Fatimid craftsmanship was employed.

Yet, in the church, we also find mosaics clearly related to a Byzantine tradition. In fact, Cappella Palatina represents the cultural mixture that characterized Sicilian society during the 12th century. As we read on ArchNet: “this small chapel exhibits an extraordinary convergence of Muslim and Byzantine stylistic influence, typical of Roger’s culturally diverse court.”

Thus, is the ceiling of Cappella Palatina Islamic? Of course, this particular image represents an Islamic subject: the fountain is Islamic, the dresses of the two-man are Islamic-style, and also their faces are Islamic (of course they have no Teutonic traits).


Now, I have two questions.

Why should we consider these four artifacts Islamic? Are they Islamic? What makes you think that they are?

They come from different areas and from different periods. What makes us putting them together?

Post Scriptum
I hope it is clear that I have only taken @siqilliyya’s tweet as an example. I do not want to question the profile or its general work 🙂


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