Islamic Art and Architecture: Unit 2 Muslim places of worship and devotion

2.11 Decoration of the mosques, madrasas and khanqahs

Two later units of this course, Unit 3: Calligraphy and arts of the Qur’an and Unit 5: Islamic ornament - Geometry, arabesque and calligraphy, will address the characteristics and techniques of ornament in Islamic art. In this section we will concentrate more on the type of decoration deemed appropriate for a religious context, and where and why some areas of religious buildings were decorated. We can divide decorative elements in religious buildings into two types: movable objects and architectural decoration.

Movable objects

Endowments for the maintenance of mosques and religious buildings demonstrate that providing Qur’ans and lighting fixtures were foremost on the patrons’ minds. Qur’ans of different sizes and decorative styles were the focus of royal patronage, as we shall see in depth in the next unit, Unit 3: Calligraphy and arts of the Qur’an. In addition to Qur’ans, Qur’an boxes and Qur’an stands were also commissioned. These were decorated with a combination of inscriptions and vegetal motifs. See, for example the carved wood Qur’an stand c.1360, Iran, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (10.218) and the bronze Qur’an box with brass and precious stone inlay from the second half of the nineteenth century, Egypt, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.73.41).

Lighting fixtures in the form of candlesticks and vase-shaped hanging lamps were also commissioned for mosques, madrasas and shrines. A common type is the enamelled and gilded glass mosque lamp with a bulbous body and conical neck found in abundance in museum and private collections. These mosque lamps are for the most part inscribed with Qur’anic verses (especially 24: 35), and the names and titles of the patrons who commissioned them. For example, the inscription on a mosque lamp from Cairo, c. 1285, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, informs us that the lamp was made to adorn a thirteenth-century tomb, while the inscription on another lamp in the British Museum suggests that it was commissioned for the Mosque of Shaykhu, built in Cairo in 1349.

Architectural decoration

The written word remains the most important form of ornamentation in mosques and buildings that serve a religious function. Inscriptions comprising verses from the Qur’an or quotations from the Hadith are rendered in various forms and in different media. Historic inscriptions that mention the date of the building and the names and titles of the founder were also used in prominent locations. The location of decorative inscriptions in a building varied but they mostly followed the structural divisions such as the base of dome, the profile of an arch, or the frame of a recess. This applies both for the interiors as well as the exteriors of a building.

Painted dome of the al-‘Amiriyyah madrasa. Rada‘, Yemen. Sixteenth century.

© Ruba Kana’an

Top floor terrace of the al-‘Amiriyyah madrasa. Rada‘, Yemen. Sixteenth century.

© Ruba Kana’an

If you look at the interior of the sixteenth-century al-‘Amiriyyah madrasa in Rada‘, Yemen (seen above), you will see that we have a combination of painted and carved stucco inscriptions. The inscriptions in the image on the left are visible in a circular pattern in the centre of the dome, a series of cartouches at the base of the dome, a continuous band at the top of the walls and following the profile of the arch on the far left. The image on the right shows a terrace in the same madrasa with a carved stucco Qur’anic inscription. The inscription is in the form of a continuous band that emphasises the structural and architectural components of the façade including entrances, niches and recesses.

Mir-I Arab madrasa. Bukhara, Uzbekistan. 1535/6.

© Yahya Michot

The painted interior of the al-‘Amiriyyah shares the same decorative language as the façade of the Mir-I Arab madrasa in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (1535/6), albeit in a different medium. Their general decorative composition is based on the use of geometric and floral patterns along with geometry as we will see in detail in the later unit, Unit 5: Islamic ornament - Geometry, arabesque and calligraphy.