Teachers' resource: Exploring calligraphy through the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art
Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 Art & Design
Key Stage 3 and 4 Design & Technology
Why explore calligraphy through Islamic art?
Calligraphy is a highly distinctive and well-developed feature of Islamic art that appears across all art forms and historical periods. There are many outstanding examples on display in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A.
The quantity and variety of examples on display in the Museum provides a wealth of inspiration for students' own design projects. Studying calligraphy presents an excellent opportunity for learning about Islamic culture as well as design techniques. Students can investigate the high cultural status accorded to calligraphy and the links between design, language and communication in cultures past and present.
This resource contains introductory creative and discussion-based activities for the classroom, worksheets and teacher’s notes for a museum visit, and ideas for extended creative design and research projects inspired by calligraphy that students can undertake at school or college. The resource can be used flexibly according to the time you have available.
A visit to the gallery and the activities in this resource will provide opportunities for students to:
- increase knowledge and understanding
- develop research, creativity and critical thinking skills
- develop literacy skills
- develop cross-cultural understanding
- gain inspiration for assignments, including GCSE, AS, A level and diploma coursework
Students will be able to:
- use Islamic art as a source of inspiration for creative design projects
- understand the significance of calligraphy in Islamic art and culture, and how it developed
- appreciate the range and breadth of Islamic artistic production across time and geographical boundaries
- understand that calligraphy involves manipulating and sometimes embellishing letters according to a strict set of rules, and the various ways in which this can be done
- understand that not all Islamic art is religious, and not all calligraphy is text from the Qu'ran
- analyse how lettering (in any language) can be manipulated to enhance, or change, a written message. Style gives the written word a tone of voice.
- make comparisons and links between the role of writing in different cultures, both historically and today
- be able to consider how print and digital media use and manipulate text today
National curriculum links
Key Stage 3 Art & Design programmes of study
- Key concepts: creativity a-c; competence a-b; cultural understanding a-b; critical understanding a-d
- Key processes: explore and create a-e; understand and evaluate a-f; range and content a-d
- Curriculum opportunities b, b-g
Key Stage 4 GCSE coursework assessment objectives
- collecting information and recording ideas
- analysing artefacts/the work of artists, designers and crafts persons
- developing and modifying ideas/experimenting with media
- creating a personal response/outcome
Links to Key Stage 3 Design & Technology programmes of study
- Key concepts: designing and making a-d; cultural understanding a-b; creativity a-c; critical evaluation a-b
- Key processes a-h
- Range and content (Note: design and make projects relate to resistant materials and textiles): designing b-e; resistant materials and textiles j-m
- Curriculum opportunities a-g
Before the visit
We strongly suggest that teachers make a preliminary visit to the V&A and undertake the activities themselves before introducing these to students. All school visits must be pre-booked.
Plan the scheme of work
This resource is designed to introduce your students to Islamic Art, together with the companion resource on plant-based design motifs. The resources could be used separately or combined to give students different starting points from which to explore Islamic Art and find inspiration for their own work. At the V&A they can find and record examples of calligraphy and plant-based art and design.
Read: Calligraphy in Islamic Art (Article)
A research sheet can be downloaded for your students to complete at the Museum:
Download Fact File: Calligraphy (PDF file, 915 KB)
Introduce Calligraphy in Islamic Art & Design
- Introduce the key features of Islamic Art & Design
Use the interactive map and style guide, or encourage students to do this independently.
View: Islamic Middle East Map (Interactive)
View: Style in Islamic Art (Interactive)
As a class, brainstorm what students associate with the word 'calligraphy'. Have they ever come across examples of calligraphy? Explain that the word calligraphy literally means ‘beautiful writing’, and that creating it requires skill and artistry. Ask them to consider why people might choose to make 'special' writing. Ask them whether a writing style can change how we read a piece of writing.
It is not necessary to be familiar with the Arabic language or alphabet in order to explore the forms, variety and technical brilliance of Islamic calligraphy, and to discover the great skill of Middle Eastern designers in incorporating calligraphy into decorative designs on objects and architecture. However, students may enjoy learning just one simple Arabic letter form, which they can then pick out in many different examples of Arabic calligraphy. We suggest the letter Shin, which has a distinctive trio of dots over it. The letter looks different depending on where it comes in the text.
Use this PowerPoint presentation to introduce the subject of calligraphy in Islamic art and design and discuss research ideas that students can explore further in the Museum and for their projects.Download: Calligraphy in Islamic Art & Design (PowerPoint presentation, 17,106 KB)
Ask students if they can spot it in the example given in the classroom PowerPoint presentation.
It is important to emphasise to your students that most Islamic art was created for secular contexts, although some was created for religious contexts. It is a common misconception that all Islamic art is religious. Generally, art that was commissioned for the palace was secular, while art that relates to mosques was always religious.
Discuss the museum tasks before you visit
A visit to the museum works best if undertaken at the beginning of a scheme of work. Introduce the projects before you visit the museum and explain what students should be looking for at the Museum when they visit. Suggested projects are given below which you could adapt for key stage 3-5. Research sheets for students to use in the Museum can be found in the At the Museum section of this resource.
School/College based activities
Ask students to experiment writing their name in a stylised manner.
- Each student should write their name slowly and carefully in the centre of a piece of paper, in a slightly larger size than they normally would.
- Ask them to consider if there are any differences between this and how they normally write their name.
- Ask them to look closely at the arrangement of letters and see if there are any characteristics that they could emphasise, for example repetition of the same letter, any symmetry or pattern in the shape of the letters as they appear together, or a large number of ascenders or descenders (parts of the letter that are taller, or hang below the line).
- Now ask students to write their name again slowly, but this time emphasising these characteristics.
- Now ask them to write it again using the fibre-tipped pen. Ensure students keep the pen at the same angle as they write in order to achieve the 'thick and thin' effect. They may need several practice attempts at this, as the feel of the pen may be unfamiliar.
- Can they come up with a final, stylised version?
- If there is time, ask them to experiment with further ways of manipulating or embellishing the letters to form a shape made out of words. This is known as a calligram.
Art & Design
- Create a piece of 2D or 3D art around a word, letter, phrase or poem of the student's choice (and in the language of their choice), taking as inspiration the concept of writing as an art form and Islamic calligraphy in particular.
- To select letters, words, phrase or poem. Why have they chosen it? Because of the way it looks or the way it sounds? Or does it have special meaning for them?
- What do they want to achieve with their work? Do they want to tell a story or just manipulate letters/words for graphic effect? Ask students to research the ways other artists and designers have used letters and typography, and how words are manipulated to create different impacts. They can make notes, collect examples and draw their working ideas. A museum visit or researching the Search the Collections can form an important part of this step. As well as Islamic Calligraphy, the Museum has many examples of text from other cultures in its collections.
Explore: V&A Search the Collections
- Now they should consider the form, scale, textures, effects and materials of their design. How are these going to relate to the chosen letters or words? Will they emphasise them or contradict them?
- Are they going to make a 2D or 3D work or use digital media, such as animation?
- They could design their own typeface, either by hand or using a graphics programme on a computer.
Design & Technology
Choose from one of the following product design challenges, all focused on incorporating lettering and/or words into product design:
- To design a gift for a friend, in which a personal written message is incorporated into the object (resistant materials and/or textiles).
- To design a household product (e.g. CD rack, TV stand, storage container) in which calligraphy or typography is incorporated into the design to indicate the object's use (resistant materials).
- To design and make garments in which calligraphy and typography is the theme (textiles)
- Research stage: students choose a product and gather ideas and inspiration for their design. This can include historical examples, a museum visit or research using Search the Collections
Explore: V&A Search the Collections
- Students develop ideas about what text to use, the style of this text and how it will be incorporated in their design. They will need to research materials and compile relevant notes, sketches, diagrams and photographs.
- Students can then make simple prototypes (if product intended for manufacture), models or mock-ups, and evaluate their design ideas.
- Evaluation of prototype/model and modification if necessary.
- Students make product.
- Evaluation of final product and design process.
- Students present their product to the class.
Encourage students to think about the choice of lettering/wording in relation to the message, object and material used. What does the writing style say about the object? It does not necessarily have to 'match' or 'fit', but could be deliberately contrasting.
At the Museum
Visit the Museum to see original examples of Islamic Art & Design and to enhance students learning. The knowledge and inspiration they gain from seeing original objects will give them inspiration for their projects. The activities we have devised focus on the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, Room 42.
A one day Exploring Calligraphy visit can be divided into two or three sessions with 35 minutes for lunch: 10.30-11.10, 11.15-11.55, 12.00-12.40 and 13.15-14.00.
In the morning, rotate groups between research activities.
The afternoon can be spent visiting other areas of the museum where other examples of calligraphy can be seen:
- Prints & Drawings Study Room
- Ceramics, Rooms 136-146
- South Asia, Room 41
- Medieval & Renaissance, Rooms 8-10, 50, 62 & 64
Tim Stanley et al. Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Middle East. London: Phaidon, 2004.
Islamic calligraphy glossary
alif the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and used as a measure for letter sizes in calligraphy.
aphorism a phrase or statement of a principle or idea written in a catchy form, which can have a moralizing message.
ascender the part of the letter that extends upwards from the main body of the letter, e.g. in the letters 'd' or 'h'
baseline the line upon which text or calligraphy sits; loops of letters can fall beneath the baseline.
bismillah 'in the name of God the merciful and compassionate' - this holy phrase is the first line of almost every chapter of the Qu'ran and frequently practiced by calligraphers as a sample piece.
calligram a word, phrase or name written in a highly stylized calligraphic form, often where the word or phrase is formed into a special shape.
colophon an inscription at the end of a manuscript that gives information about who copied the text and the date and place of production.
cursive generic name for the fluid calligraphic scripts that were developed after kufic scripts.
descender the part of the letter that extends beneath the line on which the letter sits, e.g. in the letters 'p', 'g' or 'y'.
epigraphy the study of inscriptions; an also be used as a description e.g. 'epigraphic panel' or 'a masterpiece of epigraphy'.
inscription name, phrase or other writing as it appears on buildings or objects.
Kufic an angular style of Arabic script, popular in early Islamic times.
muhaqqaq a majestic cursive Qu'ranic script.
naskhi an early cursive Arabic script.
nasta'liq a cursive script characterized by sweeps and loops, which often appear to 'hang' below the line upon which the text sits; it was often used for Persian poetry.
parchment material on which Qu'rans were transcribed in the early period before paper came into common use, also known as vellum; it is made from animal hide.
Qur'an literally 'revelation' or 'recitation'; the holy book of Islam, as revealed by God to Muhammad from about 610 until 632 CE.
reed pen a pen used for calligraphy made from a reed.
rihani a type of cursive script.
Shahadah Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as his prophet: 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophe'.
Six Pens six canonical cursive scripts formalised by government minister Ibn Muqla in 10th century Baghdad. Their names are: naskh, thuluth, tawqi, riqa’, rayhani, and muhaqqaq.
stucco architectural decoration made from moulded plaster.
sura a chapter of the Qu'ran; the Qu'ran is divided into 114 suras of varying lengths.
ta'liq cursive script, precursor to the nasta'liq script.
tughra official monogram of the Ottoman sultan (Turkish).
thulth one of the six canonical scripts ('Six Pens') formalised by government minister Ibn Muqla in 10th century Baghdad.
typography the design and arrangement of type (printed letters).