Influences and Origins of Umayyad Art
In the Museums with No Frontiers online exhibit centered around the early Islamic art of the Umayyad, the exhibit declares the art of the Umayyad to be “a combination of decorative styles and motifs drawn from different traditions. The exhibit introduction discusses the artistic and architectural influences of many previous and surrounding civilizations including Classical, Sassanian and Byzantine art. The Dome of the Rock, a marvel of Islamic Architecture, clearly illustrates this artistic collaboration of cultural influences on the artists and architects of the Umayyad. Located in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock is considered to be the third holiest city of Islam. Already a highly sacred city to those of Jewish faith, Jerusalem became a Muslim holy city when Muhammad was transported to the Seven Heavens to meet the prophets while in Jerusalem.
The exhibit demonstrates the classical influences on the Dome of the Rock through the inclusion of a marble frieze, which, like in many Cassical Grecco-Roman buildings, is carved along the interior of the building. The architecture of the Dome of the Rock itself, is so dramatically Byzantine that Bloom and Blair state on page 28 of Islamic Arts, “this building so completely follows the traditions of late antique and Byzantine architecture that some people do not even regard it as Islamic at all”. While the use of ornamental mosaic can be seen as both originating from Sassanian and Byzantine origins, the vegetal and geometric ornamentation were greatly used by Byzantine artists. This use of flowers and nature imagery has since become a hallmark of Islamic art. Brightly colored and intricate geometric patterns are also incredibly dominant in Islamic art and architecture. Therefore, when combined with the calligraphy and script of the Koran, the mosaic decoration of the Dome of the Rock clearly depicts a rich collaboration of traditions and influences to create what we consider today to be Islamic art.
Toleration between the “People of the Book”, or Muslims, Jews and Christians, can also be seen in the section of the exhibit titled, “Christian Subjects Under Umayyad Rule”. While the conquests by Muslims continued throughout the Middle Eastern Region, much of Christianity was left undisturbed. Through this, many Christian artists continued to work. It is believed these artists created work for Christians as well as Muslims. These pieces, which often contained traditional Christian motifs or imagery, were used for religious as well as daily use by followers of both religions. These traditional motifs can be seen in works such as the Lamp and Base from 7th-8th century Umayyad, which contains the Christian motif of a fish. A motif still commonly seen today in Christian art, this is a reference to the miracle performed by Jesus, whom Muslims believe to be a profit, in which he multiplied loaves and fishes for a crowd to eat. While this particular piece was likely used by a Christian, it demonstrates the contact and mixing between Christian and Muslim art and ideas. The exhibit also show intricate and geometric Christian mosaics, again displaying the Byzantine and Sassanian influences throughout the region. Through these examples of Islamic art, the exhibition proves its claim that Islamic art, as it is thought of today, was born from a vast array of different artistic traditions.