Max Condon: Understanding Cultural Exchange Between Christianity and Islam Through Pseudo-Arabic

Through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europe was shaped by cultural exchange with Islamic Empires.  These exchanges shaped the fields of mathematics, medicine, science, and philosophy, but they also led to artistic developments.  One example of how artistic iconography in Europe was shaped by cultural contact with muslims was the deployment of Pseudo-Kufic or Pseudo-Arabic in Western art.  Pseudo-Arabic refers to decorative elements in different art forms designed to mimic Arabic script.  It was used for a variety of different reasons over the course of several centuries, and its use sheds light on how Europeans interpreted and othered elements of Islamic culture.

Some of the earliest examples of Pseudo-Arabic appear on imitations of Islamic dinars from the 8th century in Anglo-Saxon England.  These coins were minted by the English king Offa of Mercia and were copies of Abbasid coins made under Caliph Al-Mansur. [1]  Although it is not known exactly why these coins were created as imitations, it is speculated that they were struck to serve as part of an annual payment to Rome.  Another theory is that they were created in order to trade with Islamic Spain. [2]  What is clear is that whoever designed the coins had no understanding of how Arabic text functioned, as the coins are full of errors.  Imitations of Islamic currency also appeared in Southern Italy in 10th century due to the widespread use of ruba’i, or quarter-dinar.  Ruba’i were minted by muslims in Sicily, and as they spread through the region, imitations bearing illegible Pseudo-Arabic started to appear. [3]  These early examples show how economic exchange shaped Christian-Muslim interactions in the Middle Ages.  Pseudo-Arabic on coinage was used in order to add a sense a legitimacy to trade.  For the English to add Pseudo-Arabic to coins designed for trade with Spanish muslims it was a crude symbol of trust.  Imitations in Italy were made for a non-muslim audience, thereby showing that even a populace that couldn’t understand the language recognized seemingly Arabic script as a symbol of strength and order backing a transaction. 

After the 10th century, decorative bands of Pseudo-Arabic became a common design element in parts of France and Italy.  These works would also incorporate imitations of arabesque or geometric patterns done in the style of Islamic art.  One example of Pseudo-Arabic from this period is a 13th French Limoges enamel ciborium at the British Museum. [4]  The use of Pseudo-Arabic as a decoration for a ciborium is notable because it would have held hosts for the Eucharist.  At the same time that Pseudo-Arabic was beginning to take shape as the West’s stand in script for Biblical times, Arabic elements were sometimes incorporated because of the perceived supernatural power associated with the inscriptions.  One example of this is the San Marco bowl, a Byzantine piece dated to the 11th-12th century.  The bowl is decorated with a band of Pseudo-Arabic around the base and on the interior of the rim.  The bowl also features Medieval approximations of classical figures.  Although it is not known exactly what the bowl was made for, one theory is that it served a place in divination rituals practiced by the Byzantine elite.  The church disapproved of these rituals because of their perceived association with pagan and demonic themes. [5]  The deployment of Pseudo-Arabic in objects made for occult rituals highlight the cultural barriers that existed at the time.  It is possible that perceptions of Arabic as an occult language is based in some way out of an understanding of the power that the written word is given in Islamic Art.  Pseudo-Arabic as a decorative element show how Islamic aesthetics were being appreciated and reproduced by a wide audience.  While the act of creating illegible imitative script requires some level of ignorance of a culture, it also shows how Islamic art was being valued and consumed by the West.  On the other hand, the association of Islamic artistic elements with occult rituals show how Medieval Europeans isolated themselves from Islam as a culture and a religion.  For something to be linked to the dark arts requires an exoticism made possible through distance.  Pseudo-Arabic represented something far enough outside of Christendom that it could feasibly be presented as something unholy.  

Ironically, Pseudo-Arabic would soon become a European iconographic marker for biblical times.  From the 14th century to the 16th century, Italian imitations of Arabic script appeared in a variety of different works of art.  Often times, the gilt halos of Biblical figures were decorated with Pseudo-Arabic. Gilt halos with Pseudo-Arabic script fell out of favor around 1350, but was revived in the 1400s as painters started responding to Italian influences. [6]  It is unknown exactly why Pseudo-Arabic was incorporated into Renaissance paintings.  One possible explanation is that Middle-Eastern scripts from the Middle Ages were misidentified in the West as being the same as scripts contemporary to the life of Christ.  The script also became associated with Old Testament heroes like David.  It was through these associations that Pseudo-Arabic, a forgery of a language that carried no meaning, began to have its own symbolism.  Examples of European armor from the 16th century bear Pseudo-Arabic inscriptions alongside classical signs such as palm branches that had been appropriated into Christian iconography as symbols of Christ and victory. [7]  The deployment of Pseudo-Arabic alongside other borrowed symbols of Christian art show that the script was becoming more meaningful than just decoration, or a misinterpretation of period appropriate script.  The meaningless symbols of the language were coming to symbolize the biblical heroes themselves.  To have Pseudo-Arabic decorations in the details of a painting is one thing, but to put it on armor as an inherently religious symbol shows that these inscriptions were coming to be seen as signs of faith and strength. 

Another theory about Pseudo-Arabic is that it represented an attempt by Christians and the Church to present their religion with an element of cultural universality.   This was at a time when the Church had a great deal of interest in international affairs, and the blending of symbolic languages may have represented a much more conscious understanding of art and culture than simply misidentifying the written language of Biblical times. [8]  There are also examples of Pseudo-Hebrew from this time period, which could also point to an active blending of representations of language to forge a more universal appeal.  Whether intentional or not, it is interesting to note how often the Virgin Mary is depicted in European art with a halo and hem adorned in Pseudo-Arabic considering how venerated she is in the Quran.  The artistic blending of cultural themes is almost an acknowledgment of the importance of the Virgin Mary in the two faiths. At the same time however, it is difficult to see from a practical standpoint how forgeries of the languages of other cultures stripped of everything but broad symbolic meaning could have led to non-Christians as viewing Christianity as a more universal religion.  Of course, while Islamic art has always had a strong focus on the written word due to the Quran’s centrality in understanding faith and God, it had long been a theological and artistic challenge in Europe.  To be sure, the biblical word was understood to have a central importance to theology, but the question of art for spaces of worship with largely illiterate audiences was always a challenge of balancing understanding with the fear of idolatry.  With this in mind, perhaps the deployment of pseudo-scripts in Christian art isn’t about showing non-Christians the universality of the faith, but instead showing a Christian audience a symbolic representation of both universality and historical legacy.  Regardless of the meanings behind its deployment, through the 16th century, use of Pseudo-Arabic became increasingly rare.  This is understood to be a result of a shift in Italian interpretation of the iconographic representation of Biblical times.  By this point in the Renaissance, the Early Christian era began to be seen through an iconographic lens of Roman antiquity. [9]

It is amazing to think how one small piece of cultural appropriation can touch on so many aspects of cultural exchange.  Pseudo-Arabic was deployed for economic reasons, artistic reasons, theological reasons, and possibly even political reasons.  While there are many examples of cultural exchange at this time that were substantially more symbiotic, through the lens of Pseudo-Arabic we get a snapshot of how symbols are borrowed and interpreted as they gain new significance and understanding.  While the ideal goal of cultural exchange should be cross-cultural growth and the broader acceptance of other societies, much of the deployment of Pseudo-Arabic depended on exoticism and a certain level of ignorance.  To have a symbolic language serve, at the same time, as a symbol of the occult in one context, and a symbol of Biblical times in another shows both the lack of a European understanding of Arabic as well as the varied ways symbols gain meaning in a society.  At the root of decorative deployment of Pseudo-Kufic, there is a sense of cross cultural appreciation.  These elements were borrowed and copied without any understanding of their meaning.  They were chosen by Europeans to be a new system of design elements purely on aesthetic grounds.  For Arabic scripts to be redeployed by cultures who lacked an understanding of their meaning is a testament to the universal power of the calligraphy itself.  In this way, Pseudo-Arabic becomes comparable to other forms of Middle-Eastern influence on Renaissance art, such as the numerous depictions of Oriental carpets in European paintings.  Renaissance painters appreciated the rich details and colors of these carpets so much that they were incorporated into a wide variety of works and took on the role of visually signifying the importance of the figures in the work. [10]

The universal experience of art is crucial in understanding how cultural exchange is possible and how positive cultural exchange can be achieved.  Through Pseudo-Arabic, one gets a sense of how intertwined the concepts of faith and artistic appreciation can be.  The language was stripped of its meaning, and therefore its religious importance, all on the perceived symbolic value of it as an art object.  From there it gained a new religious importance in a new cultural context, almost as if the religious meaning and motivation of the artist becomes imbedded in the art itself.  Symbolic celebrations of faith through art seem to be just as crucial to cultural exchange as something like economic motivations.  This is because while the necessity of a resource like gold or oil to a culture only reinforces the value of the resource itself to other cultures, art represents the inherent value of the culture itself.  It cannot be mined or cultivated through war, only stolen and diminished.  For the art of a culture to flourish it can only be valued and supported, and through the support the roots of mutual beneficial cultural exchange is laid.

Endnotes:

  1. Grierson, Philip Medieval European Coinage Cambridge University Press, 2007.  p. 330.
  2. Ibid, 330.

  3. Cardini, Franco. Europe and Islam. Blackwell Publishing, 2001. p. 26.

  4. “Ciborium”, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=49664&partId=1.

  5. Walker, Alice. 2008. ‘Meaningful Mingling: Classicizing Imagery and Islamicizing Script in a Byzantine Bowl’, The Art Bulletin, 90: 33.

  6. Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600, University of California Press, 2001. pp. 64-66.

  7. Braden K. Frieder Chivalry & the perfect prince: tournaments, art, and armor at the Spanish Habsburg court Truman State University, 2008. p. 84.

  8. Mack, Rosamond E. Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300–1600, University of California Press, 2001. p. 69.

  9. Ibid, 71.

  10. King, Donald and Sylvester, David eds. The Eastern Carpet in the Western World, From the 15th to the 17th century, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1983