Gabe Brown: Art and the Divine

Islamic art draws on several important principles to create beauty that is evocative of the divine. The concept of ishan is inseparable from Islamic art; seeking beauty serves as a way of seeking and drawing closer to God. Titus Burckhardt remarks that beauty “is like a bridge that goes from the tangible world toward God,” demonstrating how Muslim artists attempt to both manifest and connect with God through their art. The large dish in Professor Mahallati’s collection exemplifies this purpose; the intricate, floral design spotted with turquoise evokes the cosmos, which is the realm of the divine. The dish becomes a canvas upon which the artist creates beautiful imagery reminiscent of the divine order.

Repetition emerges as a key theme in Islamic art. The turquoise prayer beads in Professor Mahallati’s collection are arranged in a long thread, and the devotee holds them while verbally repeating a sacred invocation after daily prayer. While manifesting repetition physically, the beads also signal a verbal repetition that is emblematic of the intentionality behind the prayer. Repetition and intentionality come together in the form of a ritual prayer object that also holds value as a work of art. At the Allen Memorial Art Museum, repetition symbolizes adherence to tradition. The repetition of the arabesque and certain calligraphic forms in objects from various periods speaks to the ingrained nature and vitality of these techniques. The appearance of similar interlocking floral designs and calligraphy in dishes, utensils, and tiles ranging from the 12th to the 19th century highlights how artists, while not averse to innovation, found the retention of certain elements essential as they pursued their craft. This approach mirrors a broader facet of Islam, in which believers build on the traditions of previous generations.

Poetry and visual art are closely intertwined in the Islamic tradition. Calligraphy from the Quran as well as poetry from classical poets appear on many works of art. The ceramic plate in Professor Mahallati’s collection contains both calligraphy from the Quran and bits of poetry from the revered classical poet Hafez. The symmetrical arrangement and flowing nature of the text resemble the floral patterns that also cover the plate, thereby demonstrating how language in the form of calligraphy has its own intrinsic beauty. In line with Islam’s aniconism, the artistic objects do not depict human or divine beings. Instead of images, artists masterfully implant designs, colors, and words to evoke the divine. The Iznik Ware Tile, a tile from a Turkish mosque built at the site of the tomb of Ayyub al-Ansari, one of the Prophet’s companions, brings light-hearted beauty to a sacred location through the use of floral designs colored turquoise, blue, and red. Colors, designs and text come together to create evocative beauty in Islamic art.

Utilitarian objects also become works of art through the scrupulous devotion of artists. Beauty is brought into everyday life in the case of a Turkish teaspoon and spoon from the 19th century. With the engraving of incredibly detailed designs on these small utensils, the artists use their dedication as a way to glorify God. Their painstaking efforts yield beautiful products that depart from the earthly realm and point the way toward God.

Source material: Art from Professor Mahallati’s collection, Allen Memorial Art Museum