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Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, probably Cairo, 1000–1050. Museum no. 7904-1862

Rock crystal ewer, Egypt, probably Cairo, 1000–1050. Museum no. 7904-1862

The religion of Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century. Muhammad was a political leader as well as a religious guide, and after his death in 632, his successors established a vast empire. By conquest and conversion, the new religion spread quickly westwards through the territories of the Byzantine empire. By the 640s, Muslim forces were advancing across North Africa, conquering Sicily in 652 and the Iberian Peninsula in 711. By the early 8th century, Islamic territories had almost encircled the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean has always been a linking sea, and as Islam became established as a power to be reckoned with, contacts developed with the Christian-ruled states of Europe. These were sometimes the product of conflict, but more often occurred through diplomacy and trade. The Islamic side of the Mediterranean was the terminus of ancient trading networks between East and West Asia, and the Muslim states controlled other routes along which precious commodities were carried back and forth. In Europe, the main destination for these luxury imports was Italy. The city republics of Venice, Florence and Genoa controlled maritime trade in the Mediterranean, and their merchants were principally responsible for the movement of Islamic goods around its coasts.

These objects were prized, because at least initially the materials and techniques used to make them were far more sophisticated than anything being made in Europe at the time. Medieval Islamic objects made from rock crystal, for example, were thought to have magical properties because they were so clear and transparent, compared with the glass then made in Europe. These objects were given as precious gifts to church treasuries where they sometimes stored holy relics. One reason why some types of medieval Islamic objects survive at all is precisely through their reuse in Christian contexts.

Rock crystal

Naturally-occurring rock crystals were used by craftsmen from Iraq and Egypt to make objects of supreme beauty and elegance. Objects like the Egyptian ewer were made to be royal possessions of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt (969–1171). They were prized for their clarity, which was thought to combine the qualities of air and water, and for the great skill required to hollow the crystal to a thickness of only 2mm in places, and then polish its surface, without breaking or blemishing it. Most of the surviving Fatimid rock crystal ewers were preserved in important church treasuries, such as the basilicas of Saint Mark in Venice and Saint Denis in Paris.

The tiny rock crystal flask in the shape of a fish may originally have held a precious perfume. It is believed to have been made in Egypt, where rock crystal was used to make precious possessions for the ruling dynasty, the Fatimids (969–1171). It found its way to Europe where it was made into a pendant with silver-gilt and niello mounts. These bear the Latin inscription, Ave Maria Gracia Plena ('Hail Mary Full of Grace'), suggesting that it was worn as a personal talisman. The cavity inside the flask may also have been used to hold a tiny relic.

Until the 14th century, objects in rock crystal were imported into Europe ready-made from the Islamic world. European admiration for these objects, and for the clarity of the crystal they were made from, was so great that, around 1300, the French began to import the raw material from the Islamic world, and to carve their own versions. These copied the pear-shaped form of the Egyptian ewers, but their surface decoration was never as elaborate as the Islamic objects. Instead, decoration was concentrated in the silver-gilt mounts, which here feature Gothic ornaments in the most fashionable style.

Rock-crystal flask mounted as a pendant, possibly from Egypt, 900–1000. The mounts probably from France, about 1300. Museum no. M.110-1966

Rock-crystal flask mounted as a pendant, possibly from Egypt, 900–1000. The mounts probably from France, about 1300. Museum no. M.110-1966

Rock crystal ewer, with silver-gilt and enamel mounts, France, probably Paris, 1340–50. Museum no. 15-1864

Rock crystal ewer, with silver-gilt and enamel mounts, France, probably Paris, 1340–50. Museum no. 15-1864

Import & imitation

Gilded and enamelled glass perfume sprinkler, 1295–6, probably Syria. Museum no. C.153-1936

Gilded and enamelled glass perfume sprinkler, 1295–6, probably Syria. Museum no. C.153-1936

European admiration for sophisticated Islamic wares led to their imitation. Exotic raw materials such as rock crystal and ivory were imported from the Islamic world, and local craftsmen were commissioned to re-work copies of them in a more familiar style or for a specific local function. Other imported items made of less precious materials were also imitated locally, sometimes inspiring the creation of new industries.

Muslim-ruled countries like southern Spain, Turkey and Egypt, produced fine carpets which were exported to Europe from the 14th century. They were sought after as luxurious furnishings in palaces and churches, and their high status is shown by the many European paintings in which they are prominently depicted. In fact some types of Turkish carpet are sometimes known after the 16th-century European painters who included them in their paintings, such as Hans Holbein (about 1497–1543) and Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480–1556).

European craftsmen imitated the patterns they so admired in Islamic imports, especially complex floral scrolls which they called arabesques, geometric interlacing, and even the Arabic inscriptions which decorated many items of Islamic art. Certain imported shapes were so closely copied that their eastern origins were quickly forgotten. Gradually the Europeans learned the techniques themselves, and started to apply their own styles of decoration to them. These began to challenge the supremacy of the exotic imports, and Islamic production started to lose ground to European wares. In some instances, however, Islamic craftsmen seized back the initiative from their European competitors, as with the Ottoman imitations of Italian velvets.

Islamic Spain

Capital with stylised decoration, Spain, 1370-80. Museum no. 341-1866

Capital with stylised decoration, Spain, 1370-80. Museum no. 341-1866

Spain, and to a lesser extent Portugal, was the most important meeting place between the Christian and Muslim worlds of the Mediterranean. In 711 the armies of Islam conquered the Iberian Peninsula, which now became the westernmost outpost of the Islamic empire. Most of the Peninsula remained under Islamic rule until the early 13th century.

The great golden age of Islamic Spain was the 10th century, during the heyday of the Umayyad caliphate (756–1031). At this time the capital, Córdoba, was the largest and most sophisticated city in Europe; an international centre of learning, an entrepôt for trade, and a production centre for luxury arts. The caliph al-Hakam II (reigned 961–76) was a great cultural patron, and went to enormous lengths to collect books and objects from all over the known world, even asking the Byzantine emperor for a copy of Dioscorides' treatise on the medicinal properties of plants, and for glass mosaic tesserae to adorn the mihrab (prayer niche) of Córdoba's Great Mosque.

Between 1160 and 1238 the North African Almohad dynasty unified Spain with Morocco, but by 1258 they had been defeated by the Christian crusaders of the Reconquista (reconquest). Islamic territory was picked off by land-hungry Christian kingdoms, leaving only the small state of the Nasrid sultanate in the south-eastern corner of the peninsula, with its capital at Granada. This last outpost of Islamic rule on the peninsula flourished until its conquest in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

Islamic culture was present in Europe for nearly 800 years. Muslims continued to live in Spain until they were expelled in the early 17th century, but their cultural influence lived on far longer, since after so many centuries of interaction and assimilation, the Islamic origins of, for example, architectural tilework or the use of carpets had been forgotten.

Islamic influence in Sicily and Southern Italy

Dish with bird design, Orvieto, Italy, 1270–1330. Museum no. C.202-1928

Dish with bird design, Orvieto, Italy, 1270–1330. Museum no. C.202-1928

The island of Sicily, at the heart of the Mediterranean, is a natural stopping place for sea travellers. Sicily is close to Tunisia on the North African coast, and this proximity has played an important role in the island's history. Conquered by armies from Tunisia in 652, it was ruled by Muslim dynasties until the Norman conquest in 1071. Like Spain, Sicily is a region that though now part of Europe, was, for several centuries, part of the Islamic world.

Under the Normans, Islamic cultural influences remained strong on the island. These were constantly reinforced by the goods which arrived in Sicily and southern Italy through trade and the close diplomatic contacts maintained between the Norman kings and the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo. Arabic was spoken by several of the Norman kings of Sicily, and remained one of the languages spoken at court in Palermo. Objects and buildings created in Sicily were adorned with Arabic inscriptions, and Arab scholars wrote poetic and historical works dedicated to the Norman kings.

These influences were particularly strong in the 12th century, during the reigns of Roger II (1130–54) and his grandson William II (1166–89). In 1143 Roger was crowned in the Palatine Chapel which he erected in Palermo, wearing a cope inscribed with a long Arabic inscription, beneath one of the best-preserved examples of a medieval Islamic decorated ceiling.

Coastal sites on the Italian mainland were also susceptible to Islamic influences. Ceramic dishes made in Fatimid Egypt (969–1171)were popular for decorating the façades of buildings, especially churches, in the manner of tiles, since sophisticated glazed ceramics were not yet made in Italy.

Arabic inscriptions

Brass laver with incised Arabic, Netherlands or Germany, 1470–1500. Museum no. 411M-1880

Brass laver with incised Arabic, Netherlands or Germany, 1470–1500. Museum no. 411M-1880

The Arabic language has an important place in Islam since this was the language in which the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Its importance led to the prominence of texts written in the Arabic script in Islamic culture, while the sophistication of this culture is reflected in the development of refined forms of script. A great tradition of Arabic calligraphy developed and a variety of styles of script evolved; equivalent to the different fonts used in printing. Earlier styles are more rectilinear; these are usually known as Kufic script. Some are relatively plain while others have decorative flourishes, which sometimes became very elaborate.

Pre-Islamic Middle Eastern societies used inscriptions on buildings and objects, a practice that continued in the Islamic period using the calligraphic forms of the Arabic script. On Muslim religious buildings or objects, inscriptions often consist of quotations from the Qur'an or other religious sources, but not all the texts used were pious in nature. Inscriptions on luxury objects most often contain good wishes for the owner, while others are moral sayings or quotations from well-known poems. These secular texts could be used on objects made for non-Muslims, including those exported to Christian-ruled Europe.

Arabic inscriptions were seen as the identifying feature of an Islamic object and were therefore frequently imitated in European art, as they immediately gave an object a rich and exotic air. Most European artists could not read Arabic, so when they copied the inscriptions, they misunderstood the shapes of the letters or how they should be joined together, so that the inscription became meaningless, although it still looked like Arabic. Sometimes European artists were not concerned about representing the original inscription accurately and just conveyed the sense of an inscription through shapes that looked vaguely like Arabic letters. These meaningless versions of Arabic inscriptions are known as pseudo-inscriptions.

Patterns & shapes

In Islamic art, the accurate representation of living beings was controversial, since it was believed that only God could create life. For some, any image that was too lifelike threatened to encourage idol worship. Consequently, in religious contexts, the depiction of living beings was usually avoided, and other forms of ornament became predominant. Inscriptions, geometric elements, and motifs based on plants and nature came to have a prominent role in Islamic design. Certain patterns or motifs which were mostly used as border decoration by pre-Islamic cultures – especially the Romans or Sasanians, from whose art much Islamic ornament was derived – might cover an entire surface on an Islamic building or object.

European craftsmen copied designs from Islamic imports, especially luxury silk textiles. These were the most easily transportable trade goods, and often travelled vast distances. Silks made in China and Central Asia were also brought to Europe via Mamluk trade routes, and with them travelled motifs, such as the lotus flower, or mythological beasts whose exotic forms captured the European imagination.

Styles and motifs were also adapted to local tastes. In the 16th century, two styles emerged in Italy at the time of the rediscovery of Classical culture, which were directly based on plant ornaments in Islamic designs. These were known as moreschi or moresques, after the word Moor (a Spanish Muslim), and rabeschi, for arabesques. Today it is difficult for us to tell the difference between these two styles, but we still use the word arabesque to describe the scrolling plant ornament which is so abundant in Islamic design.

The shapes of Islamic imports were also copied. The albarello, for example, was originally a Middle Eastern form of storage jar, which was so widely copied in Italy that this shape is now known by an Italian word.

Materials & techniques

Dish with the arms of the Catholic Monarchs, Spain. Museum no. 1680-1855

Dish with the arms of the Catholic Monarchs, Spain. Museum no. 1680-1855

Certain artistic techniques produced in the Islamic world were so admired in Europe that they were imported in huge numbers, especially to Italy. Local artisans began to experiment with their own versions of these techniques even, in the case of tin-glazed lustreware, enamelled glass and inlaid brass, eventually surpassing their Islamic models and dominating the market.

Tin-glazed lustreware
Tin-glazing was a ceramic technique invented in Iraq in the 8th century to imitate the appearance of fine white Chinese porcelains. Particles of tin added to the traditional lead glaze remained in suspension when the pot was fired, creating an opaque white effect. Painting in lustre was a further decorative development. Metallic pigments (copper or silver) were painted on to the fired ceramic surface and the object was then re-fired in an atmosphere starved of oxygen. The pigments reacted with the glaze and fixed the metals to the surface in a thin layer. It had the effect of transforming humble ceramic vessels into glamorous objects which 'shone like the sun'.

This technique was widely practised throughout the Islamic world and was being made at Málaga, Spain by the 12th century. A competitive industry was established at Manises, a suburb of Valencia, one of the main western Mediterranean ports where Italian merchants had trading posts. Surviving Italian documents, especially from Florence, detail the huge number of imports via this trade network. These were described as maiolica, a term which only later became applied to the locally-made Italian wares. Many were decorated with the coats of arms of their Italian patrons, which helps date them.

From the late 15th century, Italian potters at Gubbio and Deruta experimented with tin-glaze and lustre to make their own ceramics. They decorated them in the Renaissance style which was then coming into fashion. During the 16th century these home-grown wares overtook Valencian imports in popularity and the Spanish industry began to decline.

Bowl with the arms of the Gondi family of Florence, Spain. Museum no. C.2047-1910

Bowl with the arms of the Gondi family of Florence, Spain. Museum no. C.2047-1910

Dish with a crowned eagle, Dish with a crowned eagle. Museum no. 7683-1861

Dish with a crowned eagle, Dish with a crowned eagle. Museum no. 7683-1861

Enamelled glass & inlaid brass

Mosque lamp, Venice, Italy, 1550–1600. Museum no. 332-1900

Mosque lamp, Venice, Italy, 1550–1600. Museum no. 332-1900

Enamelled glass and inlaid brassware were produced in Mamluk Egypt and Syria from the 13th century and widely exported, probably from Damascus, one of the main trading centres in the eastern Mediterranean. The clarity of Mamluk glass exceeded anything that could be made in Europe at the time. Coupled with the complicated and colourful technique of enamelling, these objects were highly valued by their European owners.

Venetian glassmakers responded quickly to the commercial challenge of Islamic glass and by the late 13th century they were also producing glass decorated with enamels. Some of their early products follow exactly the shape and decoration of the Mamluk exports. Venetian glassmakers ground river pebbles to create a silica with almost no impurities, which resulted in a clear colourless glass. Their rise to technical supremacy by the 15th century caused the Islamic industry to decline, and glass mosque lamps were made in Venice for export to the Middle East.

Mamluk brasswares were intricately engraved with plant ornament and bold inscriptions, and inlaid with silver and sometimes coloured resins. These were extremely popular in Italy and so many first came to light in Venice in the 19th century that they were thought to have been made there. In fact many of these pieces were probably made in the Mamluk realm, since some are signed in Arabic. Local imitations were also made in Venice and it can be very difficult to tell these apart from the Islamic imports. Sometimes the shape of the object or the tiny motifs filling the background to the main design suggest a European rather than a Middle Eastern origin.


Discover Islamic Art
An online project which brings together highlights of Islamic collections in countries around the Mediterranean, together with virtual exhibitions highlighting various themes and periods within Islamic art

Introduction to Islamic Art
Illustrated from the Islamic collections of the LA County Museum of Art website

The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Illustrated from works of art in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This subject was written by Mariam Rosser-Owen with thanks to Moya Carey, Rosemary Crill, Glyn Davies, Stuart Frost, Ashley Givens, Elisa Sani, Tim Stanley, Helen Persson

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