In Islamic architecture, the geometric vaulting structure, muqarnas, is often applied for deconstructing zones of transition in architectural decoration. The three-dimensional composition is built by assembling a variation of small prismatic elements, comparable to portions of vaults and composed according to precise rules, in overlapping levels. Both visually dazzling and widespread in the Islamic world, it leaves enormous problems to the art historians not only in its origin but also in interpretations of this purely decorative system of arranging cells. Equally early “muqarnas-like” elements have been found in both northeastern Iran and central North Africa and most authorities cannot locate one exact place for its origin. Art critics like Tabbaa question the specialists in Iranian architecture who postulate a continuous line of development that begins in the tenth century. Although the chronology and geographical orIgins of the muqarnas are uncertain, it has been widely applied in Islamic architecture and decoration starting from the twelfth century. It can be found on vaults, domes, pendentives, cornices, corbels, capitals, especially in mosques.
Muqarnas is a distinctive visual element of Islamic architecture, and scholars have considerably differed in their views as if there is an architecture called “Islamic” and if there is what are its meanings and main characteristics (Omer 483). The muqarnas decoration characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world.
Muqarnas, in particular, has lost much of its meanings and is purely decorative for the contemporary viewers. But what is the relationship between the highly geometric and repetitive form and its meaning for it often appears in mosques. This paper aims to discuss the form and meaning(s) of the muqarnas, a common element in Islamic architecture. Both visually effective and widespread in the Islamic world, it leaves enormous problems to the art historians not only in its origin but also in interpretations of this highly geometrical decorative visual system. The discussion will involve both an analysis of the form, along with the application of the muqarnas on the half dome of Masjid í shah (Shah Mosque) in early modern, Safavid Iran ( c. seventeenth century), and Islamic philosophy associated with the visual effect of the muqarnas. I limit the scope of the discussion to the muqarnas domes starting from the thirteenth century. I will use analysis of those muqarnas in mosques as a window onto social and religious issues, incorporating scientific analysis of the visual features of it from a contemporary perspective.
An articulated system of arrangement:
The Shah Mosque of Isfahan, Iran is one of the everlasting masterpieces of Islamic architecture in Safavid Iran (Figure 2). Safavid Iran was one of the three great early modern Islamic states, along with the Ottoman and Mughal empires (Bryce 208). Ordered by the first Shah Abbas of Persia, the construction of the mosque began in 1611. Together with the construction of the whole Mosque, the muqarnas decoration was created between 1611 and 1629. Muqarnas is usually associated with domes, doorways and niches, but it is often applied to other architectural features and is sometimes used as an ornamental band on a flat surface. In this case, the muqarnas was designed to deconstruct the space between the walls and the half dome of the iwan entrance to the Shah Mosque. This Muqarnas on half-dome, in particular, this architecture rich in geometric forms is part of the signature design of Shah Mosque of Isfahan, also known as Imam Mosque. The architect developed a system of muqarnas to enable a rather elaborated transition from the square base of the walls to the half circular dome.
The muqarnas in the iwan forms a downward-facing, honeycomb shaped structure connecting the top of the half-dome and the rectangle basis supporting the dome. Although at first sight it appears to be very complex, the muqarnas is a carefully planned system of projecting niches. It is a three-dimensional composition created by assembling, in a variety of combinations, simple prismatic elements, comparable to portions of vaults and composed according to precise rules, in overlapping corbelled levels (Garofalo 357). It consists of eight overlapping corbelled registers, joining elements of the same height. Similar to the construction of the muqarnas of Zisa palace in Palermo, each register is created by the superimposition of two rows of sandstone ashlar blocks (Garofalo 359). One muqarnas cell consists of multiple tiers (layers) and each tier consists various basic structural elements (cells and intermediate elements). Each cell forms a three-dimensional pointed structure which looks like a small portion of a smooth vault. After all different shapes of cells were produced, they are attached to the architectural structure using ribs. The central pole table expanded from 4, 5, and 6 segments to 7 and 11. Again the cell can be divided into facets and a roof, as the each side of facets intersects with the adjacent one. In general, the two identical intermediate elements in the shape of a triangle is placed between the roofs of two adjacent cells, while the disposition of such elements varies according to geographical location, the time period of construction, the part of the building they are applied, and the material used. Using the two-dimensional pattern as a guide, one is able to find the arrangement of these elements was based on a repetition of geometric shapes. Grouping of rows with a resilient rhythm of stars, it achieves a dazzling visual effect to the spectacle by mirroring and correspond to the patterns.
The three-dimensional composition looks rather complex because each register formed by assembling several same components on the same level and a variety of combination among the different levels. The muqarnas is based on radical compositions of underlying grid system usually coming with sketches, could be adapted to different architectural frameworks, no matter how complicated their structure. (Notkin 152)
Also known as the stalactite vault, the Shah muqarnas hanging from the ceiling of the entrance gate is a form of architectural ornament which forms with geometric subdivision of a corbel, mostly dark blue, glazed tiles (Figure 4). The tile material gives a fine definition to details that shows the style consistency with the whole iwan entrance. The muqarnas is rich in decoration but has no strong structural function. Each tile bears geometric patterns with floral designs: white flowers with gold vines around them. The bottom parts of the muqarnas form a series of robin egg blue and gold five-pointed and four-pointed stars. Though the structures of the basic elements are simple and abstract, they all have dedicated decorative patterns.
Notkin argues that the muqarnas can be regarded as a sort of wall sculpture; it is often decorated with ornamental painting and tile mosaics, and the artistic expressiveness of these works shares an affinity with the plastic arts. Because the spatial structure of the muqarnas can be decoded in surviving drawings by noting the rhythmic distribution of the rows and stars in multi-tiered reliefs, niche-shaped semi-domes, and faceted ledges formed by them. (Notkin 152)
The development of plastics art beneath the dome can be understood by their function in reflecting and refracting light. In its repetition and complexity, the design becomes a metaphor of infinity. Here in Shah Mosque of Isfahan, glossy ceramic tiles are utilized, reflects sunlight to create a dazzling visual effect that glorifies the Shah (king).
Clearly, the decoration shows the desire in the Islamic architecture to dissolve the barriers between the surfaces. In its repetition and complexity, it probably offers a metaphor of infinite and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well. For the viewers, many muqarnas cells become an endless extension to the sky.
The Palacio del Partal is the oldest palace of the Alhambra, the Nasrid royal residence above Granada. Of the Islamic building erected by Muhammad III in the early fourteenth century, only one hall survives, with an arcaded portico giving onto a long pool. Connected to this hall is a tower that in the nineteenth century, when the area was in private hands, was called the Torre de las Damas. It also forms part of the Alhambra walls and provides a unique view over the valley of the Darro and the city of Granada, which after its 200-year golden age was conquered in 1492 by the Christian monarchs of Castile and Aragon.
From the domed roof of the Palacio del Partal, one would see an early example of muqarnas decoration on the edges 16 wooden panels. The geometric vaulting structure functions as transitional decoration element to deconstruct the slightly skew roof. The elements of the muqarnas are in a downward-facing shape, Each cell of the muqarnas is shiny and gold. The doom roof is in good condition. No obvious damage had been found.
Geometric patterns make up one of the three non-figural types of decoration. The ceiling panels illustrate the significant intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, Each panel is decorated with inlaid wooden stars with four basic geometric shapes. The four basic shapes, or “repeat units,” from which the more complicated patterns are constructed: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.
Mostly critics notice that Islamic architecture is rooted deeply in mathematics and geometry. All the domes share basic features including small but distinct cells with squinches, colonnettes and many other structural features alike. Yasser Tabbaa argues that those common features of the muqarnas system are influenced by Muslim philosophers and theologians devoted considerable thought to the nature and the universe and their relationship with God.
The ceiling from this tower forms an incomparable ‘heaven’ above the ‘Moorish Cabinet’: at its crown is a sixteen-pointed star motif from which radiate sixteen trapezoidal panels, each composed of an interlaced framework whose interstices are inlaid with decorative elements, among them many eight-pointed stars. The carved inlays, picked out in golden color, have scrolling tendril and leaf motifs or inscriptions with the Nasrid motto, ‘There is no victor but God’. This formula of faith in God is endlessly repeated on the sixteen-sided base with its characteristic muqarnas cornice, a decorative series of miniature niches. Here the geometric vaulting structure, muqarnas deconstruct the transitional areas between the doom and the rectangular ceiling. Both repetitive and complex in structure it dazzles and contributes to create an illusion of heaven.
Tabbaa asserts that based on the Islamic philosophy, matter changes according to accident created by the will of God: a world which to him to everything other than God, is composed of atoms and accidents; also the solid argument of the existence of God as the only creator. Here, he suggests that the muqarnas dome is an architectural manifestation of this thoroughly orthodox Islamic concept. The invention of the muqarnas dome coincides with the triumph of the atomist-occasionalist view of the universe as formulated by al-Baqillani and supported by Caliph al-Qadir (991-1031) (Tabbaa 69) in order to express an occasionalist view of the universe
Surely a book on the social architecture of Islam can offer more than such fizzled interpretations. The availability of primary sources is so limited in this field. Other critics, however, follow Tabbaa probably because many of the early records have lost in history. From very early on, the Muslims accepted the atomic view of matter, space and time. (Fakhry 33)Therefore many believe that, not merely as a decorative device to fill the space, muqarnas is an Islamic solution firmly grounded in the theology of its time. Undeniably decorative. Repetitive and changing arrangement never lose its meanings. The architect did not make the system more complicated by adding more kinds of cells. Instead, they changed the way of arrangement in the later centuries. It implies the concept of the occasionalist in arrangement.
The second aim of this paper is to combine research for contemporary use. As “One of the most original inventions,” the muqarnas lives on for centuries and make a significant in architecture in the present (Tabbaa 61). Except for its philosophical meaning bonded to the Islamic religion, its distinctive visual language influences much post-modern to contemporary architecture as well.
The decorative design in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha shows a muqarnas-like elements on the inside of the building. The museum is designed by Chinese American architect, I. M. Pei. Here, he reproduced a contemporary version of the muqarnas. More simplified in the kinds of cells used. He adopted the radical form with cells in larger size and monogram color. Critics have admired the smoothness of the pink Tennessee marble cladding and the precision of the assembly (Legault 81). With the light coming through the window, the muqarnas is still dazzling with the reflection on its surface.
In sum, it is obvious to see the significance of muqarnas as a culture of “unsurpassed synthesizing order” and “sophisticated imagination” comparable on a global scale after exploring the development of muqarnas. The muqarnas decoration forms its own system in arranging cell that deeply rooted in mathematics and geometry.
Art historians have argued about its origin and interpretations of this purely decorative system of arranging cells. For the loss of records, it offers a historical question if the muqarnas ceiling forms an incomparable ‘heaven’ for the Islamic. No doubt that muqarnas is a distinctive visual element of Islamic architecture which enriched the visual language and provides effective and flexible deconstructing solutions towards architecture and engineering even in the present. Even basic issues of historical narrative and chronology are widely absent from the field research. This is equally true for the availability of primary sources. Therefore, those historiographical questions which are crucial to the understanding of Islamic culture and architecture need to be answered in the future.
1.Muqarnas of the Iwan in Shah Mosque,c. 1611-29, Isfahan, Iraq
2.Shah Mosque, c. 1611-29, Isfahan, Iraq
3.Basic construction of the muqarnas on the dome
4.Basic construction of the muqarnas on the arch
5.Basic construction of the muqarnas cell
6.Domed Roof from the Palacio del Partal in the Alhambra,1200 – 1250, Granada, Spain
7. Muqarnas in Fez Morocco, 13th – 15th centuries, Turkey, Bursa
8. Element from a Stalactite Squinch (Muqarnas), 10th century, Iran, Nishapur
9. Tile from a Squinch, second half 14th century, Uzbekistan, Samarqand Citations
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