By Tessa Sarr
The changing use and decorative depiction of images of the zodiac on functional objects from the 12th through 17th century as a reflection of ideals of Islamic culture
Tessa Sarr • ARTH 275 • 05/09/2017
The concept of the zodiac in Islamic culture is one in which astrology is analogous with astronomy. In medieval Islamic society science and religion not only coexisted but constantly supported and influenced each other. In a way, much different from that which we observe in Western culture. Seen as early as the 8th century in decorative frescoes of the Umayyad Dynasty, the development of the depictions of images of the zodiac, the planets, and astronomical imagery reflects this evolution of the use of decorations of the zodiac signs in Islamic art, visually preserving this growth and belief. The depictions of the zodiac and elements relating to astronomy and astrology seen in art objects from the 12th through 17th century reflect their importance throughout culture and society. This development and integration through art can be seen growing and changing through uses of figural representations, content of inscriptions, overall composition, and intended use of the objects. This general trend can be seen in a variety of metalwork objects which reference different texts, stories, and manuscripts from many periods of Islamic history.
The use of the images of the zodiac wasn’t seen until around the 8th century, one of the first known examples seen in the frescoes of the desert castle of Qasr ‘Amra, located in Jordan (Figure 1). On the dome of the caldarium, or hot room, is the earliest existing depiction of the constellations on a two dimensional surface. The decoration shown incorrectly in a counterclockwise order indicates the decoration was most likely based upon either a flat drawing or illustration, the source of which is unknown. Showing a remarkable amount of detail, including up to thirty-five identifiable constellations in the hemispheric dome, this early example of depictions of the zodiac provides a reference point from which to base further exploration and examination in the objects to follow.
However, first it is important to understand how early Islamic astrologers interpreted the structure of the universe in relation to the decoration of the following objects. They believed that “the universe was constructed from a series of concentric circles with the Earth at the center surrounded by a number of spheres, each corresponding to the space in which a planet rotates.” It is in the eighth sphere referred to as the sphere of “fixed stars,” where the constellations come into play. This space containing the constellations of the zodiac as well as the thirty six remaining constellations, and rotates in relation to the other seven. Each of the seven planets are assigned two signs of the zodiac which they were thought to control, except for the Sun and Moon which only controlled one zodiac each. It is because of this close relationship between the planets and the constellations of the zodiac that the two are frequently seen together in the decoration of Islamic art. This further reflects the interconnection between astronomy and astrology in Islamic culture, two studies which were seen as nearly analogous with each other, which is quite different from modern Western belief.
Besides this connection between astronomy and astrology, this explanation of the function of the heavens also connects to ideas of religion as well, as articulated by Muhammad Shabistari, a poet from the 14th century who said, “the heavens revolve day and night like a potter’s wheel. And every moment the Master’s wisdom creates a new vessel. For all that exists comes from one hand, one workshop.” This close connection to the heavens in Islamic culture also has deep connections to its religious beliefs, necessitated by some of the founding principles of Islam. A religion centered around the cycle of the moon given Islam’s use of the lunar cycle as the basis for their calendar system, the ability to find the exact direction of Mecca from anywhere in the world as well as keeping track of the time of the five daily prayers are achieved by this close understanding of the constellations and the solar and lunar cycles, and their relation to how we perceive them from Earth. The frequent use of decorative elements of the zodiac and this innate connection between science and religion poses a problem given the heavily based figural nature of many of the zodiac signs themselves mixed with a religion with a general aversion to figural representations. The types of visual accommodations to account for this seen in the decoration of objects not only indicate possible contexts for use in the past, but also show a vast overall understanding and integration of images of the zodiac throughout Islamic culture.
A 12th century cylindrically-shaped box with matching lid with slightly flared top and base, cast in bronze with engraving and copper inlay, is decorated with roundels containing images representing the twelve zodiac signs, (Figure 2). They are surrounded by inscriptions of kufic and naskh script in bands above and below. The lid is decorated with two circular bands of inscriptions in kufic and naskh script surrounding an open circle in the center of the lid, while the side of the lid flush with the body of the box reads kufic inscription. All these inscriptions are all blessings to the owner but their exact translations are not known.
The symbols of the zodiac on this box are adapted to exclude figures which suggests perhaps in this specific instance the object was used in more of a religious context. Most of the signs of the zodiac are shown using symbols, such as Pisces represented by two curved fish opposite each other, or Taurus shown as a bull. With the signs that are more difficult to show without a human, figures show just hands holding the sign’s distinct attribute or image. Sagittarius, for example, is simplified to a pair of hands drawing a bow and arrow. Virgo is indicated by hands holding a spike of grain. With the figural representations distinctly being those containing the human figure and those alluding to it as seen in the modified decorations in the 12th century box, these modifications not only explain the possible context for use of the object, but also provide information relating to this relationship between concepts of astronomy and astrology existing in a culture with many strong foundations in religious tradition.
While the 12th century box illustrates this harmonious relationship between science and Islamic religious belief, a 13th century candlestick illustrates the talismanic nature of the decorations of the zodiac, (Figure 3). Made out of cast brass and decorated with engravings and silver inlay, this candlestick depicts the twelve figural signs of the zodiac in roundels surrounded by various bands of inscription in naskh script. These bands of script, variations upon the same blessing are then finished with “with bliss” repeated around the base of the candlestick to finish the blessing. Referencing this talismanic significance in its use, there is a more recent engraving on the candlestick presumed from the 18th or 19th century carved over the sign of Sagittarius. The carved name is that of the 19th century owner of the box, so it can be assumed that perhaps this later owner identified with this sign, placing his name in its location, for the good fortune that would follow. The form of the candlestick itself conforms to the standard shape and construction seen widely throughout Islamic art. The signs of the zodiac are shown almost exclusively in their full figural representations. Sagittarius is represented by the centaur, a half man and half human, Capricorn is shown as a man riding a goat, Aquarius is shown as a male figure with a jug of water, and Pisces is shown as a figure sitting on a pedestal, holding a fish in either hand (Figure 4). These signs of the zodiac, in combination with the inscriptions of blessings, point towards a talismanic use of the object. The power and good fortune of the images of the zodiac were meant to apply to its owner.
This immense importance of the zodiac in daily life is seen throughout the development of Islam and its art forms. This is recorded throughout the tales of the Shahnameh, Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s poetry epic The Persian Book of Kings, written around 977 CE. Sectioned into three parts – mythological, legendary, and historical – each tells the stories of the kings throughout time. All throughout this literary masterpiece references are made to this use of faith in the stars to serve as guides in daily life, to aid in making decisions or even see the future. Naturally extending to the rest of the population as well, this specific text illustrates this practice of royal figures consulting their priests about the stars in order to make sound decisions. Seen in the story of Zal and Rudabeh, many characters consult their priests to look for answers in the stars when wishing to know the outcome of possible events. This reference to courtly life in relation to the zodiac can be seen in the decoration of the 14th century basin with zodiac signs and royal titles, (Figure 5). The basin’s overall decoration reflects this importance of the zodiac in daily life. Originally part of a set with a matching ewer, this basin is lavishly and intricately decorated on the interior, (Figure 5). The exterior, in contrast is relatively plain with an inscription. Made out of brass and embellished with inlaid silver and engraving, the pair would have been used for ablutions in most likely a wealthy or royal household. The interior decoration, consisting of a combination of depictions of the signs of the zodiac and planets as well as bands of inscriptions and vegetal decoration, work as a reference and record of early Islamic astronomical and astrological belief and knowledge. While it was believed the Earth was at the center of the universe, in the decoration of the basin the sun is shown at the very center. Perhaps also seeming contradictory since the Islamic calendar was based off of the lunar cycle instead of the solar cycle, the sun was still an extremely important and central aspect of understanding the zodiac. In order to determine an individual’s zodiac sign it was decided by the constellation of which the sun was a part of during their birth – as the sun moved through the sky throughout the year, it would spend approximately a month’s time as a part of each zodiac’s constellation. Therefore this placement of the sun in the center of the decoration is a significant and deliberate choice consistently seen in similar depictions of the planets and zodiac. It is never the moon or any other planet as the center.
On the inner walls of the basin there are scenes depicting activities of courtly life as well as an inscription in thuluth script partially inlaid in silver which translates to, “Happiness, abundance, felicity, honor, glory, permanent prosperity, eternal memory for the illustrious lord,” which is a blessing for the owner, but also a reference to the talismanic imagery used through depicting the signs of the zodiac and planets. This Islamic belief in the power of the stars and constellations to influence events is visually reinforced by this inscription, illustrating the strong connection between science and belief, faith and the universe. The visual language of the decorative elements of the basin allude to this belief of the concentric layers of the universe, as seen in the concentric bands containing roundels depicting the signs of the zodiac and planets within.
While this overall understanding of the structure of the universe is reflected in the decoration of many objects of daily function, aside from these figural representations this presence of the zodiac exists even further as seen in astronomical and scientific instruments as time progressed beyond the 14th century as seen in a 15th century celestial globe made of brass and engraved with silver inlay. This is an excellent example of early celestial globes produced in the style of Al-Battani’s first globes, which were not used as observational instruments but instead to accurately record celestial data collected through the use of sextants, quadrants, or armillary spheres, (Figure 6). There is an inscription in kufic script near the base of the globe which is the signature of the maker, Muhammad ibn Jafar ibn Umar al-Asturlabi also known as Hilal, the date of the calculations (1431 AD), and the inscription “Suwar al-kawakib al-thabita” which is stating that the calculations were made in accordance with Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib, or The Book of Fixed Stars of al-Sufi. Originally created around the beginning of the 12th century in 1125, Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib served as a manuscript compiling all of the known fixed stars at the time, which were stars used for navigation and contained within constellations. Throughout the book illustrations of the zodiac are rendered from two separate perspectives – the first from below, as humans would perceive them on Earth, and the second from above, how Allah would view them from the heavens. This duality of perception embraces this early idea of the collaborative nature of humans being both under the mercy of the fates of the zodiac, as well as the watchful eye of Allah.
Stemming from this tradition seen in Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib of preserving scientific information through an artistic eye, such celestial globes were used to not only record such astronomical data, but also were used as instruments of instruction to demonstrate calculations and positions for students working in observatories. While one of Al-Battani’s most ambitious celestial globes recorded the coordinates of up to the 1,022 stars that Muslim astronomers had named throughout their discoveries. This specific globe only has roughly sixty stars with zodiac names engraved along the ecliptic line, which records the sun’s path over a year. This intended use of the globe, informed by both elements of Islamic artistic and scientific tradition, begins to show this elevated visual presence of the zodiac as time progresses, a trend which will be seen through to the 17th century and beyond. Produced during the Timurid Dynasty, this combination of astrology and astronomy in such a visually appealing work can be interpreted as a mutual support of the arts and sciences from Timurid rulers. As seen in the horoscope of sultan Iskander Beg, a manuscript dating back to 1411, the Timurids had an especially close connection to the zodiac, as were a large portion of the objects created in the duration of the dynasty, (Figure 7).
Over time the ways in which symbols of the zodiac were being used and depicted on Islamic vessels grew and changed, under the influence of the simultaneous development of scientific instruments A dial presumed to have originally been part of an astrological clock, it was once the base upon which three dials were affixed in order for the instrument to operate, (Figure 8). Astrological clocks were scientific devices used to track and determine the movements of the moon, sun, planets, and constellations of the zodiac. Unlike scientific instruments in Western culture, this dial is intricately decorated with a variety of figures representing a range from mythology to astrology in connection to the original intended scientific purpose. The decorative elements mainly consist of personifications of planets and figures using scientific instruments.
Starting at the position of twelve o’clock, there is an engraving of personified Saturn with his multiple arms, (Figure 9). At six o’clock is the Zodiac Man, a concept tracing to origins of the Middle Ages in Europe which divides up the parts of the body into regions, just as was believed the Earth was divided in a similar way, each of which governed by a different zodiac sign, (Figure 10). This inclusion of the Zodiac Man in conjunction with the date of its creation in the 17th century suggests that it was created after contact with ideas of European origin. Despite this, the dial and instrument itself is still distinctly Islamic in origin as it clearly displays this combined use of science and belief simultaneously. The two sets of figures on either side of the dial, at three and nine o’clock, show two men using scientific instruments, one of which appears to be an astrolabe, (Figure 11). Created during the 17th century, the dial is by far the youngest and therefore shows the most developed and overall culmination of this harmony between art, religion, and technology. With its all over combined composition mixing scientific instruments, decorative arts, and creatures of mythic belief as seen in the presence of the Zodiac Man, together these further illustrate the collaborative nature of the Islamic belief system with science and lore.
All throughout history and cultures, the arts hold a special role in preserving the beliefs of the time as well as mapping their change and growth through time, and Islamic culture is no exception. The decorative elements of functional objects of daily use as well as astronomical and astrological instruments serve as a record of overall systems of belief within culture through a combined use of figural representations, inscriptions, overall composition as well as the intended uses of these objects. Each alluding to the close relationship between the zodiac and elements of daily Islamic life, these objects truly capture a snapshot of how these beliefs functioned and were a part of their culture throughout time. The immense importance and talismanic nature of images of the zodiac illustrates a society of not only great belief and coherence, but a grander faith in and beyond the stars.
Figure 1. Zodiac fresco in the dome of the caldarium of Qsar Amra, 8th Century.
Figure 2. Box, 12th century, Islamic, Bronze and Copper inlay, Khurasan found in Iran
Figure 3. Candlestick, 1200-1250, cast brass engraved and silver inlay, Iran
Figure 4. Candlestick decoration detail
Figure 5. Basin with Zodiac signs and royal titles
Figure 6. “Celestial Globe,” 1430-1431, Timurid Dynasty, brass engraved with silver inlay, Iran
Figure 7. The zodiac of sultan Iskander Beg
Figure 8. Dial from an astronomical instrument, 17th century, copper engraved, Iran
Figure 9. Dial detail of Saturn
Figure 10. Dial detail Zodiac Man
Figure 11. Dial detail men using scientific instruments
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