Islamic and Early Medieval Art


Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, c. 687-691 (photo by Andrew Shiva [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons)

The period from c. 400-c.1000 in the West is often seen as one of decline because of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Europe becomes fractured, with a number of groups fighting for control of territory, and the political system sliding into feudalism. After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the new religion of Islam spread quickly throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with the Iberian Peninsula conquered by Islamic forces in 711. The Islamic forces were the ones that preserved and expanded Greco-Roman learning, and were ultimately responsible for reintroducing a number of ancient texts back into Europe. Spain became a major center of learning in this period, with Islamic, Jewish, and Christian scholars working together to translate texts.

Figurative imagery is banned in Islamic religious art, so new forms of patterning were developed. Calligraphy was developed to a high art form, and the tile work and mosaics on mosques, or Islamic spaces of worship, would have images of flowers and plants to remind the faithful of the lush gardens of Paradise. An early example of a mosque is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, pictured above. This mosque marks a site sacred to the 3 major religions of Jerusalem, the rock said to be where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac; the rock of Golgotha, both the burial place of Adam and the site of the crucifixion of Jesus; and the rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven. This mosque is octagonal in form, and is topped with a dome on a drum, and was probably built by Byzantine craftsmen in the city, which had been recently conquered by Islamic forces. The decoration is tile work and mosaics with geometric and floral forms as well as calligraphic inscriptions of texts from the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book.


Interior, Dome of the Rock



Calligraphy was developed into art early on in Muslim traditions, and often had an underlying aspect of protection.  Arabic was not a written language until after the prophet Muhammad’s death, and the different dialects were standardized by the end of the 7th century. Kufic script was the earliest form, and became steadily more decorative through the 10th and 11th centuries. There was a different decorative script developed in Islamic Spain as well.

L0035003 Arabic Kufic calligraphy, A passage from the Qur'an

Page from the Qur’an with early Kufic script (photo by See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Page from the Qur’an with later Kufic Script, 11th-13th centuries


Detail of calligraphy from the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, c. 1333








The Great Mosque at Samarra, in Iraq, built around 852 follows the plan that is typical of the early Islamic mosques, and is said to be based on the plan of the house of the prophet at Medina. There is a large open courtyard, called a sahn, with colonnades around it and a well in the center for washing before prayers. The minaret is at the front of the mosque, there will not be 4 at the corners until after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The qibla wall, oriented to Mecca, is at the back of a hypostyle hall, and has the mihrab set in within it, reinforcing the direction of Mecca. The minaret of this mosque imitates the form of the ziggurat, or ancient tower forms from Iran and Iraq, with a swirling stair around the outside.

Great Mosque at Samarra, 852 with details of plan and minaret (photos by By en:Arab League User [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and
By IgorF – vlastni foto, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, or al-Andalus, by Islamic forces began in 711. In 750, the last of the Umayyads from Damascus fled to Spain, and established the emirate there as Abd al-Rahman I. His capital was Cordobá, and there he built a spectacular mosque, which was enlarged over the next few centuries by his successors. Abd al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph in 929, making Cordobá the capital of a caliphate until 1031. The mosque was built over the remains of Roman temples and Visigothic churches, and incorporated spolia from each, which included columns and decorative elements. The main hall of the mosque was used for prayer, teaching, and as a law court. The hypostyle hall is actually a forest of double horseshoe arches, made more visually interesting through the use of alternating red and cream stones in the voussoirs, and the dome over the elaborate mihrab bay is made up of criss-crossing arches, creating visual patterning and a rosette shape that will be imitated in other buildings in Muslim Spain.

Great Mosque, Cordobá, Spain, begun 785-786, enlarged 987 with detail of hypostyle hall (photos by By No machine-readable author provided. Ulamm assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral–Mosque of Córdoba) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mihrab bay and dome, Great Mosque at Cordobá, c. 961-976 (photos by By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Cathedral–Mosque of Córdoba) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Alex Proimos (Flickr: Great Mosque of Córdoba) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Abd al-Rahman III also built the palace of Medinat Al-Zahara, begun between 936 & 940 on the outskirts of Cordobá, and seen by many as a precursor to the Alhambra. The palace was lavishly decorated with precious metals and stone; false rivers, pools, and fountains provided sound; and there were extensive gardens. Rahman III spent lavishly on the arts, though, at the expense of a military, and the palace was destroyed after a coup that also destroyed the Caliphate of Córdoba. This is one of the events that assisted the Christians in the Reconquista.

Medinat al-Zahara, begun 936-940

The last vestige of Islamic Spain was the Nasrid Kingdom that made up the Emirate of Granada, and this fell to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. The palace that marked the capital of this kingdom was the Alhambra, which means the red one, and is a fortified city on top of a hill, covering an extensive area with fortified walls, 21 towers, spaces for garrisoning troops, courtyards, pools, gardens, and fountains. There were 4 main palaces at this site. The layout of the site involves a series of 4 squares and rectangles, where the fourth is double the size of the first, and they all correspond in size to the square root of 2, 3, 4, and 5. This corresponds to the idea of perfection in Islamic culture, and to the fact that the Alhambra, with its water features, gardens and buildings was supposed to represent paradise on earth. Many of the pools also are meant to reflect endlessly the palace, sky, and gardens around them, making them infinity mirrors. Above the main gate is the 5 fingered hand with the palm out, which is a reference to the 5 pillars of faith in Islam. It is also the Hand of Hospitality, offering welcome to travelers.

Alhambra, Granada, Spain, built 889, rebuilt 13th century, converted to palace 1333


Alhambra, Courtyard with reflecting pool


Alhambra, main gate with 5 fingered hand

Because of that prohibition on figurative decoration, the symbolic references of the palace, and the fact that there are mosques on site, there is no figurative decoration on the site. Many of these take the form of arabesques, or elaborate curving forms. There is also a great deal of Muslim tile work on the site, each piece precisely fitted with the one next to it, so it forms a large puzzle. This tile work was done by skilled craftspeople with an elaborate tin-based glaze on it. One of the other important decorative elements in the palace is the use of light to create heavenly or overwhelming effects, which one can see best in the throne room of the palace, also called the Hall of the Ambassadors. Much of the decoration also contains hidden poetry, often written in the female voice in Arabic. It often refers to beauty and the sultan. Also contained within the site are references to the Prophet Muhammad, such as in the Hall of 2 Sisters, which also has a dome filled with muqarnas, or ornamental vaulting made to look like the honeycombs, and which are tiny squinches.

Alhambra, arabesques, hidden poetry and tile work

Alhambra, Throne Room and space for the Sultan’s Thone. The use of light would have made the Sultan seem even more overwhelming in person


Alhambra, dome of the Hall of 2 Sisters

Water is also used extensive throughout the palace, for a variety of reasons. Muslims bathe before they pray, so pools and fountains are especially important close to mosques and prayer rooms. Also, the water acts as a reflection of the splendor around the visitor. Beyond that, it is a reference to the rivers of paradise, reaffirming the significance of the structure itself. It is also with one of the water features that you can see the only figurative sculpture in the palace, the Fountain of the Lions in the Court of the Lions.

Alhambra, Water Features

Alhambra, Fountain and Court of the Lions

In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, and the Roman Empire in the East fell. Although Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and the 4 minarets were added, the Ottoman rulers built a number of new mosques, many of which imitated Hagia Sophia in form. Sinan the Great became the chief architect to Sultan Süleyman I, and built the Süleymaniye Mosque starting in 1550. The mosque has the same large dome with a clerestory on pendentives and curtain walls as Hagia Sophia, but with a sahn that is surrounded by an arcade. This marks the new style in Islamic architecture during the medieval period.Süleymaniye_MosqueSinan the Great, Süleymaniye Mosque, 1550-1557 (photo by By İhsan Deniz Kılıçoğlu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sinan the Great, Süleymaniye Mosque sahn and interior (photos by By User:Ggia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Rabe! – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Northern Europe in the Early Medieval period was marked by continuous invasions, a fractured political landscape, and a slow conversion to Christianity. Many of the artistic forms through the 9th century combined the pre-Christian interlace patterns of these cultures with the figurative traditions of southern Europe, although in a much more abstracted form. Works like those found in the burial at Sutton Hoo, which combined the interlace of the northern Europeans with sophisticated cloisonné and enamel work, speak to the technical abilities of these peoples.

Anglo-Saxon golden belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, Suffolk (England). 7th century AD. British Museum. (photo by By Michel wal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,  and Purse-lid from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial 1, England. British Museum. (photo by By Rob Roy User:Robroyaus on – or, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Although rune stones that predate Christianity are known from the Viking regions, King Harold Bluetooth, a 10th century Danish king who converted to Christianity, used this form to combine pagan and Christian motifs in his rune stone at Jelling. This stone declared his conversion, and by extension, that of his people.

Harold Bluetooth’s rune stone, Jelling, Denmark, c. 965

Ireland, as it converted to Christianity, became a scholastic haven in Europe, and Irish and Scottish scholars were sought out as teachers and thinkers in the Early Medieval period. It is in Ireland that the hybrid Hiberno-Saxon, or Insular, art form really took hold, although this art form can be found throughout the British Isles, as can been seen in early crosses that marked either important graves or road crossings. These crosses carry the interlace patterns of earlier Northern European art, but have the 5 dots on them that mark the marks of the stigmata of Jesus and a halo-like form behind.


South Cross, Ahenny, Ireland, late 8th-early 9th centuries

This art form was highly developed in the monasteries of the British Isles, where monks produced elaborate, hand-decorated books of the Bible and other religious and secular manuscripts in their scriptoria. The ones from the British Isles, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, also include elaborate carpet pages, or fully decorated pages preceding the next book of the Gospel.  F26vCarpet Page of the Lindisfarne Gospels, 8th century (photo by By Eadfrith – Lindisfarne evangeliarium, Public Domain,


Chi Rho Iota Page from the Book of Kells, late 8th or early 9th century (photo by Public Domain,

The Carolingian Period in Northern Europe was begun by Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne. In 768, Charlemagne ascended the Frankish throne, and in 800, Pope Leo III crowns him Holy Roman Emperor in Rome, a surprise to Charlemagne. Charlemagne was known as a great military leader, who also reformed the educational system of feudal Europe, advocated for women’s education, and tried to revive Latin as a spoken language. He established his main capital at Aachen, today’s Aix-la-Chapelle, and attempted to revive Roman culture and learning. Here he built the famous Palatine Chapel, which was a centralized octagonal church planned as an imitation of San Vitale in Ravenna built by the Emperor Justinian. Charlemagne even was given permission from the pope to remove some of the marbles from that church and install them in his new church at Aachen. The Palatine Chapel included a space on the exterior where Charlemagne could appear to the people assembled in the courtyard, and is said to still contain his throne. Although the church was enlarged in the Gothic period, it still retains much of its Carolingian design elements.

Exterior and interior, Palatine Chapel, Aachen, 792-805 (photos by By HOWI – Horsch, Willy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Karlsthrone (Throne of Charlemagne), c. 790s (photos by By Arnoldius – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Geolina163 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Manuscripts were important in Charlemagne’s Roman revival as they were a portable form of artistic and educational communication. Charlemagne also wanted scholars to reform existing texts and halt their corruption, and he connected his literary revival with liturgical revival. Charlemagne hired some of the most prominent scholar-teachers of the day, including Peter of Pisa and Paul the Deacon (of Lombardy) to teach grammar and rhetoric; Theodulf of Orleans was a theologian and poet; and Alcuin of York had been trained in the English intellectual tradition by the Venerable Bede. This brought together the Italian, Spanish and English traditions. Charlemagne wished to establish a system of education for the young whose primary purpose was to develop literacy. Alcuin of York established the curriculum, and insisted that humane learning consist of that which developed logic and science. Alcuin of York established a system of schools throughout the Frankish empire that were centered in monasteries and towns. The manuscript art that came out of this period reflects the hybrid nature of Carolingian art. There are interlace patterns that form the borders of the pages, yet in the figures, there is an attempt to create more Roman forms interacting in a landscape. The Utrecht Psalter, which is a copy of an earlier work, is filled with line drawings of human figures and animals interacting in landscapes in a fairly believable manner.

Coronation Gospels, Saint John, late 8th-early 9th century (photo by By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Aachen Gospels, Four Evangelists, early 9th century (photo by By Karolingischer Buchmaler um 820 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Page from the Utrecht Psalter, c. 800 (photo by By Unknown monks c. 800 – Utrecht Psalter, c. 800, Utrecht University Library, Public Domain,

Monasteries were a key to conquest and Roman reforms. Many monks became experts in art or craft and their knowledge survived in copies of handwritten texts. Charlemagne had Alcuin of York bring the Rule of Saint Benedict (of Nursia in Italy, 480-547?) to his empire, and imposed it on the monasteries to reform and impose on them some sense of regular observance. This rule set out the ideal monastic life, where the brethren were to live in community with an elected father, the abbot, for the purpose of being schooled in religious perfection. This also emphasized poverty, chastity and stability, in addition to obedience. The monks were expected to pray at specific intervals of the day, and the rule was the same for both men and women. The reforms to the buildings and the ideal of monasticism survive today in the plan for the rebuilt Monastery of St. Gall in what is now Switzerland.

Plan and Model of St. Gall, Switzerland, c. 820 (photos by By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain,

The Carolingians after Charlemagne could not hold onto power. This led to the rise of the Ottonians, a series of German emperors, who, although they did not succeed in uniting Germany, did establish the format of the Holy Roman Empire that would remain in place until World War I. The first of these emperors was Otto I the Great (936–973), who was a Saxon emperor in control of Germany. He was crowned Holy Roman emperor by the pope in 962, and attempted to continue Charlemagne’s revival of Classical antiquity. The Abbey Church of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim, built c. 1000-1031, and rebuilt after World War II, is the best surviving example of church architecture from this period. It follows the plan laid out by Charlemagne in the plan of St. Gall, with the large Westwork and the apse at the east, and has an elaborate wooden ceiling.

St. Michael’s, Hildesheim, Germany, c. 1001-1031 (photos by By Longbow4u – Own work (photo taken myself), Public Domain, and By Longbow4u – Own work (photo taken myself), Public Domain,


Interior, St. Michael’s, Hildesheim (photo by By Longbow4u – Self-photographed, Public Domain,

There are 2 other important Ottonian monuments from this church as well, both of which mark the advancements of technology in this period. These are the Bronze Doors and the Bronze Column of Bishop Bernwald, both of which were cast in a single casting, a first in Europe for the bronze casting method. Bernwald was said to be inspired for the doors by the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, and wanted a column that would remind people of Trajan’s column in Rome. Both were cast c. 1015, according to legend by the bishop himself. The doors contain typological references to the Old and New Testaments, pairing things like the Fall of Man with the Crucifixion. The column contains 28 scenes from the life of Jesus, and was once topped with a crucifixion scene.

Bronze Doors of Bishop Berwald (and detail), c. 1015 (photo by By Bischöfliche Pressestelle Hildesheim (bph) – [1], Attribution, and By Unknown – Hans Karlinger: Die Kunst der Gotik, Proyläenverlag, Berlin 1926, Public Domain,

Bronze Column of Bishop Berwald (and detail), c. 1000 (photo by By Paulis – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and By Thangmar, photo taken myself – Own work, Public Domain,

Otto II married a princess of the Byzantine court, and the art of the court of their son, Otto III, the last major Ottonian ruler, reflects this influence. His Gospel book, created between 982 & 1002, contains images with the frontal stance, almond-shaped heads and eyes, and flattened poses of Byzantine icons, but with some references back to earlier Carolingian presentation manuscript pages, such as that of the Vivian Bible from c. 846.

Vivian Bible, Abbot Vivian Presenting Bible to Charles the Bald, c. 846 (photo by By Saint-Martin Monks of Tours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons) and Gospel Book of Otto III, The Emperor Enthroned, 982-1002

By the end of the Ottonian period, Europe was already undergoing changes. This was the period of the beginnings of the decline of feudalism, the rise of a viable middle class, and the importance of the pilgrimage European Christianity.



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