The curators of this exhibit effectively demonstrate how Umayyad art reflects the artistic traditions of its predecessors by identifying some of the historical and cultural influences on the Umayyad artistic and architectural style. As Islam spread rapidly throughout the Middle East, Umayyad art became greatly reflective of the traditions of the regions it subsumed. Specifically, Classical, Christian, and Sassanian traditions helped shape Umayyad art.
As the capital city of the Muslim Empire, Damascus is home to many of the cultural and artistic traditions of the Umayyad dynasty. The curators specifically mention how the city of Damascus had a legacy of a classical artistic style, which increasingly became evident in the Umayyad art. Specifically, the wooden panel decorated with high relief composed of two thick branches depicts some of the Hellenistic traditions that influenced Umayyad art. The curators distinguish the “compositional attention to nature and the variation of the decorative levels and elements” as some characteristics of the Hellenic style that were incorporated into the decoration of Umayyad art. Additionally, Roman mythology played a significant role in Umayyad art. For example, the plaster floor painting of the mother-goddess of Roman mythology, Gaea, elucidates the significance of Roman myths on the developing Islamic art styles. This classical influence suggests the eclectic nature of Umayyad art, specifically as a product of the cultures and traditions of the preexisting regions.
With the spread of Islam across the Middle-Eastern region over the Nile Valley, the traditions of Christianity also became a huge influence on Umayyad art. The curators suggest that this influence became extremely relevant to the art because the Christian population lived in secluded, smaller towns and were therefore able to maintain many Christian traditions. These traditions, thus, appeared in artistic forms during the Umayyad rule. Specifically, the lamp and base depicting the Christian motif of a fish, suggests the presence of Christianity on Umayyad art. As these Christian symbols and motifs were maintained under Umayyad rule, the Islamic art of the region reflected this presence of Christianity. However, as Islamic tradition restricted the presence of representational human and animal forms, iconoclasm influenced the existing Christian art. The curators identify crosses and other geometric or floral motifs as alternatives to some of the more representational imagery. For example, in the Church at Massuh mosaic, the destroyed figures were replaced with floral and geometrical motifs. The iconoclasm, therefore, suggests a dialogue between the existing Christian traditions and the dominant Islamic ideology that ultimately shaped and influenced Umayyad art.
The curators also distinguish the features of Islamic art that combine decorative styles and motifs from Sassanian tradition. As the Ummayad caliphate sought to conquer Constantinople, Umayyad art began to reflect some of the art and architecture of the East, specifically Iran. This is exemplified in the floor painting of the hunting scene with musicians. This floor painting that covered the reception room in the east wing of the Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi plays on some prominent Sassanid mythology. Additionally, the figure of the hunter has notable Sassanid garb that ultimately elucidates this sense of cultural appropriation on Umayyad art. These Sassanian traditions play, therefore, a central role in some of the Umayyad art, thus affirming the curators’ claim that Umayyad art combines styles and motifs from different artistic traditions. Overall, Umayyad art was significantly impacted by the specific artistic styles and traditions of the regions that were undertaken by Islam.