II) Islamic Art (Mid-13th to 18th)

Leaf from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), 14th century The Mongol invasions of the Islamic world began in 1221 with the conquest of eastern Iran, and later in 1258 brought to an end the Abbasid caliphate by taking over Baghdad. Establishing rule over most of West Asia, including Iraq, Iran, Khorasan, the Caucasus, and parts of Asia Minor, Hülegü (ruled 1256–65) assumed the title of "Il-Khan," meaning lesser Khan, subordinate to the Great Khan ruling in China. This branch of the Mongol dynasty, which became known as the Ilkhanids, centered its power in northwest Iran.

Following the conversion to Islam of the Il-Khan Ghazan (ruled 1295–1304) in 1295 and the establishment of his active cultural policy in support of his new religion, Islamic art flourished once again. East Asian elements absorbed into the existing Perso-Islamic repertoire created a new artistic vocabulary, one that was emulated from Anatolia to India, profoundly affecting artistic production.

Dome over the tomb of the shrine of cAbd al-Samad at Natanz, 1307 Mausoleum of Sultan Uljaytu in Sultaniyya, 1307–13

During the Ilkhanid period, the decorative arts, textiles, pottery, metalwork, jewelry, and manuscript illumination and illustration, continued along and further developed established lines. The arts of the book, however, including illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of religious and secular texts, became a major focus of artistic production. Baghdad became an important center once again. In illustration, new ideas and motifs were introduced into the repertoire of the Muslim artist, including an altered and more Chinese depiction of pictorial space, as well as motifs such as lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes. Furthermore, the widespread use of paper and textiles also enabled new designs to be readily transferred from one medium to another. Last but not least, the Ilkhanids built numerous mosques and Sufi shrines in cities across Iran such as Ardabil, Isfahan, Natanz, Tabriz, Varamin, and Yazd (ca. 1300–1350).


As in preceding periods of Islamic art, calligraphy remained an important decorative element, although in the late medieval period (mid 13th to 15th) new cursive scripts were introduced or popularized. Nastaliq, a distinctive type of hanging script, was developed during this period. It was used primarily for copying Persian poetry, not only on paper but also in inscriptions on a variety of objects. Persian texts of this period were most often copied in this elegant, refined script. Poetry written in Turkic languages was also rendered in the Nastaliq script.

Lamp, Egypt or Syria, mid-fourteenth century

The Mamluks were prodigious patrons of the arts who took a special interest in building religious foundations, which they supplied with all manner of beautiful furnishings, including lamps (see left).The Arabic inscription supplies the name and titles of the person who commissioned the lamp, but there is also a heraldic device, known as a blazon, repeated on the upper and lower sections of the lamp, which specifically pertains to its patron. Whether intended for a religious edifice or for private use, works of art commissioned by the Mamluks were often decorated with their blazons. Bold calligraphic bands of Thulth became the main decorative element on Mamluk metalwork during the first decades of the fourteenth century.

In the late islamic period (16th -18th), perhaps even more so than in preceding periods, art was an instrument of dynastic expression in this great age of empires. Spurred by royal patronage, the arts flourished under the Ottomans and Safavids. Ottoman military incursions into Iran in the later fifteenth century, and throughout the sixteenth century, led to the appropriation of artists, works of art, and artistic ideas. Ottoman decorative arts and the arts of the book were thereby enriched by the repertoire of floral and vegetal motifs first developed in fifteenth-century Iran, generally referred to as the international Timurid style. In the sixteenth century artists also willingly emigrated eastward from Iran to India, bringing with them a style of book illustration that contributed to the development of a new and distinctive Mughal idiom. On many levels this was an international period, in which Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal art were each impacted by the aesthetic established in fifteenth-century Iran.

Jar, Turkey, Iznik, early sixteenth centuryChinese pottery had long been admired, collected, and emulated in the Islamic world, and this was especially the case at the Ottoman and Safavid courts. Such Chinese porcelains influenced the style of Safavid pottery and other decorative arts, but they had an especially strong impact on the development of the Ottoman pottery known as Iznik ware. Iznik ware takes its name from the northwestern Anatolian city where much of this pottery seems to have been made. Produced as architectural revetment as well as tableware, Iznik pottery is one of the most notable and renowned arts of the Ottoman period.

Nushirvan Receives an Embassy 
from the Khaqan, Page from a manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of kings)Iran, Tabriz, c. 153035
High court art under the early Safavids is perhaps best exemplified by manuscript illustration.This now-dispersed copy of the Shahnama was made for Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524–76) in Tabriz, the Safavid capital. The manuscript originally included 258 illustrations, innumerable illuminations, and more than one thousand pages of text, all with gold-flecked borders. A book of this magnitude would have taken several years to complete, perhaps even a decade or longer, and the manuscript is generally believed to have been executed between 1522 and 1535. Its numerous illustrations display a diversity of compositional types and styles, many of them derived from later fifteenth-century painting.

Paper was naturally an important element in the making of a manuscript. Papermaking was introduced to the Islamic world from China in the mid-eighth century. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the apogee of illustrated manuscript production in Iran, the technique of papermaking (from flax and occasionally hemp), had become quite sophisticated, allowing for the manufacture of sizable sheets of paper, as large as three feet across. After the text was copied, certain sections, the opening pages, the beginning of each chapter, and the closing page, were often elaborately decorated, usually with strictly symmetrical compositions of delicate vegetal and abstract designs, which enclose and sometimes even overwhelm the calligraphy. Such illuminations, which are often brilliantly embellished with gold, were the work of specialized artists such as the designer and the gilder. This type of lavish illumination is a standard feature of luxury manuscripts and one the glories of Islamic arts of the book.

With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art has been subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. Even under all these circumstances, Islamic art has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity.

List of dynasties

(source: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org)