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.However, European artists usually misunderstood the shapes of the Arabic letters or how they should be joined together; sometimes they 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.
Bowl with Kufic inscription, Eastern Iran or Uzbekistan. Museum no. C.909-1935
Bowl with Kufic inscription
Eastern Iran or Uzbekistan
Museum no. C.909-1935
This small bowl is decorated with a simple inscription in the more rectilinear Kufic style. It reads 'Blessing and ease to its owner'. Good wishes for the health or good fortune of an object's owner were one of the most common types of inscription in Islamic art. Here the lettering has been elongated horizontally, so that the short inscription fills the whole space. This creates an elegant and decorative effect.
Silk textile with inscription, Spain, Granada. Museum no. 1105-1900
Silk textile with inscription
Museum no. 1105-1900
This silk textile was made in the court workshops of the Nasrid dynasty, who were the last Islamic rulers in Spain. During the 14th century, silks woven with this kind of striped decoration became very popular in Granada. Here, wide bands of inscription in a cursive script alternate with narrower bands of lotus flowers and geometric interlace. The inscriptions stand out clearly in white silk against a blue ground. One phrase is repeated four times along each row of this fragment. It reads 'Glory to our Lord the Sultan'.
Tunic, Egypt. Museum no. 291-1891
Museum no. 291-1891
After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642, the long-standing traditions of Roman and Byzantine dress continued alongside Islamic fashion. This man's tunic is a good example of new features mixed with old. Most intriguing are the different scripts in the tapestry woven decorations. A pseudo-inscription on the shoulder bands, close to the neckline, may have had the Arabic phrase 'Dominion belongs to God' as inspiration. On the medallions of the same shoulder bands, there is another 'inscription', which resembles the script used for Coptic, the language of most Egyptians at the time of the Islamic conquest. Neither the Arabic or the Coptic lettering conveys meaning here, and are treated as any other pretty pattern.
Enamel plaque, Limoges, France. Museum no. M.104-1945
Museum no. M.104-1945
This enamel plaque shows three men being resurrected from the dead on the Day of Judgement. It probably came from a larger enamelled object showing Christ's crucifixion, which is referred to in the Latin inscription along the bottom of the plaque. Around the other edges, a border of pseudo-Kufic has been engraved into the copper. This pairing of a border decoration derived from Arabic with a strongly Christian scene may reflect an appreciation of Islamic luxury arts in French church or noble treasuries.
Silk fragment, Italy. Museum no. 814-1899
Museum no. 814-1899
During the late 13th and early 14th century, luxury silks with lively scenes made in the vast Mongolian empire were in high demand among Europe's elite. To compete with these expensive silks, European textile industries had to adjust, and incorporated eastern motifs into their products to better appeal to the European luxury market. This Italian silk fragment shows a dramatic scene typical of the period, in which a large bird attacks a deer. It is combined with a scroll bearing pseudo-Kufic inscriptions. The eastern motifs and the exotic inscription create an illusion that this was an example of the more expensive imported silks, instead of Italian production.
Mazer bowl and cover, probably France. Museum no. 221-1866
Mazer bowl and cover
Museum no. 221-1866
This lidded drinking bowl is carved out of a knot of maple wood, which is known as a 'mazer'. Mazer bowls were common in royal or noble households until the 17th century and were often adorned with gold or silver mounts. This example is unique for having carved decoration, which is also particularly elaborate. Amongst the floral motifs run two long bands of pseudo-inscriptions, one encircling the lid, the other the body. These inscriptions probably copied those on imported examples of inlaid brassware made in the Mamluk empire.
Pharmacy jar, Spain, Valencia. Museum no. C.123-1931
Pharmacy jar (albarello)
Valencia (Manises), Spain
Museum no. C.123-1931
An albarello was a form of storage jar that originated in the Middle East. It stored spices, herbs or medicines, which were exported to Europe, where the form of the container was copied. They became a popular shape for pharmacies, because they often had a pinched-in waist, which meant they could easily be grasped when they were lined up close together on a shelf.
This example was made in Spain, in the Christian-owned workshops of Manises, near Valencia. At first, these were staffed by potters from the Muslim lustre industry at Málaga, and the earliest products continued many motifs from their Islamic antecedents. This included the use of Arabic inscriptions. One particular word is common on pharmacy jars from Manises, the Arabic word al-'afiya , meaning 'well-being', which is appropriate for their medicinal contents. However, the word is written in a very stylised way, so that it becomes a pattern rather than a readable inscription.
Tapestry altar frontal with scenes of Christ's Passion, Southern Netherlands. Museum no. T.1-1921
Tapestry altar frontal with scenes of Christ's Passion
Probably Arras, Southern Netherlands
Museum no. T.1-1921
This magnificent tapestry shows the descent of Christ from the Cross, his entombment, and then his resurrection. This subject matter indicates that it was probably used as an altar frontal in a great church or cathedral. In the entombment scene, the figure at Christ's feet wears a robe whose borders are decorated with pseudo-inscriptions. Islamic silks would have been luxury imports in the 15th-century Netherlands, where this tapestry was made, and the figure's prominent position, almost at the centre of the tapestry, implies the high status environment in which this tapestry was woven and used.