Islamic Decorative Motifs

Distinctive features of Arabic books include geometric and floral illuminations and other nonfigurative patterns. Such designs appear in Christian and Hebrew books created under Muslim influence.


QURAN

Scribe and artist: Mulla Ala Bik Tabrizi?, Iran, second half of the 16th century, 15 x 10 1/8 in. (38.1 x 25.7 cm), MS. Ouseley Add. 178, fol. 2a

This ornate copy of the Quran in Arabic is a superb example of Safavid illumination. This splendid full-page image is a distinctive Islamic decorative device called a carpet page. Such panels were painted in imitation of the design of a carpet, often with geometric and floral patterns.



HEBREW BIBLE

Scribe and ilustrator: Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, Soria or Tudela, Spain, c. 1300, 13 x 20 1/2 in. (33 x 52.1 cm), MS. Kennicott 2, fols. 14b–15a

The scribe Joshua executed not only the writing, but also the micrographic and painted decorations of this biblical text. Seven Bibles produced by him survive today. These two carpet pages mark the beginning of the Pentateuch. The castle symbol of Castile is at the center of the left panel, an allusion to the Christian kingdom then emerging to challenge Muslim power. It is surrounded by Islamic interlace patterns, an interesting interplay of imagery within a Hebrew manuscript.



HEBREW PSALTER

Spain, late 15th century, 3 7/8 x 5 3/8 in. (9.8 x 13.7 cm), MS. Opp. Add. 8° 10, fol. 119b

Micrography, the use of minute script to create designs, is a type of decoration often found in Hebrew manuscripts. Here the final verses of Psalm 149 and part of Psalm 150 are framed by interlaced bands of tiny text. The braided pattern of words, hardly discernible without a magnifying glass, comprises the "masorah" (critical notes on the biblical text). The overall effect is similar to that of richly ornamented Islamic carpet pages.

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PART OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ARABIC

Scribe: Thuma ibn al-Safi ibn Yuhanna Damascus, 1342 , 11 1/8 x 7 3/8 in. (28.25 x 18.73 cm)
MS. Arab. d. 19, fols. 196b–197a

Islamic decorative patterns were also used by Christians who lived under Muslim rule. This Arabic translation of the New Testament was copied by a Christian scribe in Damascus for a Christian patron. It is written in beautiful Thuluth script, a large and elegant cursive popular during the Mamluk period (1250–1517). The right-hand page shows the end of the Letter of Jude, followed by a colophon which states that the manuscript was commissioned by the merchant Sir George Aumada and was copied by Thuma ibn al-Safi ibn Yuhanna in 1342. On the left is the title-page for Acts of the Apostles.

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