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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsSPEAKER: Throughout the world manuscript collections and museums of Islamic art include a great number of Quran manuscripts in different forms, sizes, materials, and levels of decoration. In the previous section, we looked at calligraphy, one important type of aniconic or non-figural type of decoration in on manuscripts and Islamic art. In this section we're going to look at the two other types of abstract and iconic design, geometric designs and vegetal motifs, otherwise known as eslimi. Geometric designs adorn monumental architecture and function as a major decorative element on a vast array of objects and manuscripts. They generate from simple forms, just circles and squares, but are combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations to form patterns.

Skip to 1 minute and 7 secondsGeometric designs use four basic shapes or repeat units. These could be circles, squares, or stars, and multi-sided polygons. They can also incorporate other types of ornamentation such as vegetal or arabesque patterns.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 secondsVegetal patterns were frequently used to ornament manuscripts. Vegetal patterns in the Umayyad and early Abbasid period adapted patterns from Byzantine and Sassanean cultures. But from the 10th to 12th centuries, a highly abstract and stylised Islamic form of the vegetal pattern emerged. This is sometimes referred to as arabesque. In the 13th and 14th centuries, after the Mongol invasions of Western Asia, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals incorporated complicated versions of these patterns. Sometimes this incorporated a new interest in naturalistic flowers such as these manuscripts. Non-representational painted decoration in manuscripts is known as illumination.

Skip to 2 minutes and 26 secondsAs discussed in the previous section, the earliest examples of illumination in Quran manuscripts were used to mark divisions in the text with a clear distinction for the end of the verse and every fifth and 10th verses. Manuscripts of the Quran were almost always decorated with geometric and vegetal motifs, patterns, and designs that were added in the margins, as part of the frontispieces and headpieces, and within the text. We will concentrate now on several examples to demonstrate how and why illuminated Qurans are considered to be works of art. The styles and techniques of Quran illumination, and arts of the Islamic book in general, developed significantly after the Mongol invasion and the fall of Baghdad in 1258.

Skip to 3 minutes and 17 secondsTheir descendants adopted Islam, settled mainly around Iraq and Western Iran, and ruled under the name of Ilkhanids. They introduced many influences into Islamic art and were significant patrons of Qurans. The Ilkhanids were patrons of monumental manuscripts that were large in scale and numerous in numbers. They patronised famous calligraphers such as Yukat al-Musta'simi who refined the cursive scripts by cutting the reed at an angle and trained other famous calligraphers. The Ilkhanids also established artisans quarters, such as the one established by the vizier Rashid al-Din in Tabriz in the 14th century. Here an endowment deed provided for the copying of a 30 volume Quran each year on large size paper with neat script and leather binding.

Skip to 4 minutes and 12 secondsFrom the beginning of the 16th century, a new style of Quranic manuscripts prevailed in the Muslim world with some regional variations. One of the main elements of the new style of illumination was the preference for vegetal ornaments and arabesque designs over the traditional geometric interlace. Most Quranic frontispieces were in the forms of a shamsa, a medallion in the shape of a sunburst, in the middle of the page. Geometry was almost reduced to the standard text frames with or without horizontal decorative panels. Vegetal motifs, including the new floral compositions with lotuses and peonies, and later under the Ottomans, tulips and carnations, became the dominant features of the illuminated Qurans. The colour palette of the decoration also changed.

Skip to 5 minutes and 1 secondThe previously predominant blue and gold repertoire was made deeper and new colours, including a deep blue and red, were introduced. The calligraphic scripts and their use on the folio also underwent some major changes Qurans were generally smaller than before, and the scripts were finer. Different sizes and styles of script were at times juxtaposed on the same page. From the 18th century onwards there are examples of even smaller, miniature Qurans, that were likely to have been produced for personal devotional use and study. These personal Qurans are often less elaborate in decoration and appear more modest in comparison to the earlier monumental and imperial manuscripts of the Ilkhanids and the Mamluks.

Skip to 5 minutes and 54 secondsThere are, however, also examples of beautifully illuminated manuscripts, such as this one, which contain a selection of surahs and is illuminated in the Safavid design.

Decorating the Text

As you watch this video, consider the following questions:

Apart from calligraphy, what other techniques and styles were used to decorate Qur’an manuscripts?

How was Islīmī (vegetal motifs) used?

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This video is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham