Islamic art: characteristics, works, architecture and mosaics

At the beginning, Islam had its presence in the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 1492, Andalusia being the last bastion of the Muslim Empire in Spain. For this reason, the monuments considered to be the most relevant of Islamic art are located within the Andalusian territory.

When speaking of Islamic art in Spain, it is possible to observe that the most outstanding architectural works are located in the territories of Granada, Cordoba and some Andalusian provinces, which are adjacent to each other and which were once under Muslim rule during the different periods of the Middle Ages.

Islamic art moroccan mosaic tiles

What is Islamic art and its characteristics?

Islamic art is defined as a current of artistic order developed in its generality by all those people who practice the Islamic religion. Like all figures related to art, it has a long history in time and in everything related to geography worldwide.

Islamic art, due to its expansion, always had a very strong component of union, this is explained by the fact that even though Muslim artists were always in constant movement, Islamic writing became common to all of them.

This preponderant factor caused Islamic art to evolve in a very cohesive manner, which meant that it kept intact the values of geometry and decoration. In addition, Islamic art has a presumption of geographic and temporal homogeneity, a factor that is not common in art.

In view of this, it is easy to distinguish three types of Islamic art, which we will now list:

  1. Lacquerwork: they represented lines that were able to intertwine in a great way, which were able to originate stars and polygons.

Islamic art Lacquerwork

  1. Kufic calligraphy: it was a type of art that was generated by the fragments of the Koran, which is called the holy book of Islam. This means that they represented from the fragments the text of the book.

Islamic art Kufic calligraphy

  1. Ataurique: it was a type of Islamic art that was achieved by means of vegetal illustrations.

Islamic art ataurique

Another outstanding feature of Islamic art was its architecture, and it is that at the time, buildings were created that subsequently had a function, whether it was of a religious order or not. Among this Islamic art, mosques have stood out.

It is also important to note that there was no artistic current within Islamic sculpture. However, within many types of architecture, there were often carvings in ivory or ceramics.

The same was true of painting, which generally predominated in almost all representations of secular and divine books.

All these characteristics led to Islamic art becoming predominant as the art of any culture, which allowed it to evolve over time from a great variety of sources, despite the close contact between Islamic culture and other cultures, such as, for example, Roman, Byzantine, Paleochristian, Persian art or all the styles of central Asia.

In them there were Turkish and Mongol incursions, where Chinese art stood out, which allowed them to shape and mold Islamic art in its architecture, painting and sculpture.

When did Islamic art begin?

The origin in time corresponding to the Islamic art is located in the year 622, which is considered the year of the birth of the Muslim religion that, according to history, occurs when Mohammed goes from Mecca to Medina, due to the intransigence that existed with respect to his preaching and, in this way, when the Islamic religion was born, its art was generated practically instantaneously.

Regarding the geographical origin, it can be pointed out that there is no specific point, but it is said that it was in the Bay of Bengal, where it originated, managing to expand to the Middle East, northern India, Africa and Spain.

Features of Islamic art

All types of art stand out for their multiple characteristics, which are influenced by various factors, such as religion, geography and other cultures that somehow marked its development.

Because of this, Islamic art has a series of characteristics that differentiate and distinguish it from the rest of the arts, among these are:

  • Painting and sculpture: which were artistic currents that had little development, due to the fact that in the Islamic religion representations of religious figures were forbidden.

Islamic art sculpture

  • Architecture: it is considered the most developed artistic modality in Islam.
  • In this art common materials were used, such as brick or plaster. This was due to the fact that its geographical origin was centered in the Arabian desert, whose climate is very extreme and because of this, there is a shortage of materials such as stone.

Islamic plaster artwork

  • As for Islamic architecture in general, the ceilings and walls are mostly covered with plaster, tiles or wood, apart from the fact that its decoration stands out for its geometric shapes, epigraphic or vegetal calligraphic forms.

Islamic ceiling art

  • Another outstanding characteristic is that they used to absorb elements from the cultures they frequently conquered, such as the Visigothic arch and the Byzantine dome. They used to recycle the art of other cultures, since they built their buildings on the basis of the previous ones.
  • Another characteristic to highlight is that they used geometric compositions in order to avoid any type of representation of humanity.
  • It should be noted that the techniques of greatest use in Islamic art are generally the mosaic of Byzantine tradition, stucco, relief sculpture and tiling.
  • Finally, the composition in Islamic art is based on the repetition of some geometric schemes, whose form is serial, in addition to the composition formed by different decorations and symmetries.

Islamic art works and architecture

Among the monuments belonging to Islamic art found in Spain are the following:

  • The Alhambra of Granada: considered the architectural work of greatest representation of Islamic art in Spain, so much so that it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The Alahambra is recognized as a monumental complex located on an Andalusian palatine city, located in the city of Granada. It is a complex made up of gardens, palaces and fortresses, built to house the emir and the court of the Nasrid Kingdom.

architecture in Islamic art, The Alhambra of Granada

  • Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: it is called to be one of the most visited monuments in Spain. It was built in 784 and is called to be the epicenter of the Emirate of Cordova and the subsequent Caliphate. It is a construction that reaches 23,400 m2 and, at the time, became the second largest mosque in the world after Mecca, which represents the cultural center of Islam. It was later surpassed by the Blue Mosque, which is located in Istanbul.

Islamic art architecture the mosque of cordoba

  • Bib-Al-Mardum Mosque: in the Andalusian territory there remain many monuments of Islamic art, which have an enormous cultural value. In this case it is the Bib-Al-Mardum Mosque, a type of construction that is located in Toledo, whose origins date back to the year 999, belonging to the period of the caliphate and that later had to be converted into the Christian hermitage of Christ of the Light.

architecture in islamic art, Bib al Bardum Mosque

  • Medina Azahara: it is also located in the city of Cordova, is a monument of city-palace, which was built by the Cordovan Caliph Abderrahman III, during the tenth century, whose intention was to transform it into the capital of the Caliphate and that this was the royal residence, as well as the seat of government.

Islamic art architecture, Medina Azahara

  • Torre del Oro: It is located near the Guadalquivir River, in the heart of Seville. It is one of the many towers that are said to rise in the Spanish territory and whose origin comes from the Islamic art in Spain. It has a height of 36 meters and is one of the most representative monuments belonging to the Muslim culture in the Iberian Peninsula.

architecture in islamic art, The Gold Tower of Seville.jpg

Torre del oro from Seville, photo from España Guide.

All these monuments of Islamic art in Spain have had the good fortune to be joined by innumerable towers, walls and buildings, linked to Muslim art and which, at present, still remain in the different Spanish cities.

That is why, establishing the difference with other types of art, such as African art, Asian art or any other type of artistic current, there is no possibility of getting Islamic art in some exhibitions in Madrid, nor in other cities.

Therefore, the only thing left is the enjoyment of the landscape where Islamic art manages to merge with Spanish cities. Knowing that the Islamic culture was able to enrich the architecture of the Iberian Peninsula in a decisive way.

Before this, a consideration of strong impact was that the Muslim culture in Spain, arose from the creation of numerous irrigation ditches and numerous irrigation systems or through the canalizations of the water that, at present, still maintain their use within a great quantity of Spanish localities.

Muslim art

Muslim art tends to represent inanimate nature, which leads to a predilection for fantasies with a naturalistic background, which has a geometric character that emerges as a complement to architecture and the repetition of abstract forms.

In this type of art the presence of polygons is frequent, as well as regular or stellated polyhedrons. The Muslims were great builders, among their architectural art are the palace, the fort and the tomb, as well as less laborious buildings such as fountains, domestic architecture and public baths.

His painting was always closely linked to the knowledge of mathematics, since all the geometric motifs of his ornamentation were extracted from a polygonal formula. At the time, the geometric figures were transformed into numbers that through repetition came to determine cadences.

Major works

Among the main Islamic works considered of exceptional character are the following:

  • Gur-e Amir: It is a type of Mausoleum of Tamerlane (Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan) that constitutes one of the most precious jewels of Islamic Art, which can be visited in the city of Uzbekistan. The relevance of this mausoleum is that it was erected by the Asian conqueror Tamerlane, which was dedicated in honor of his grandson Mohammed Sultan.

Islamic art architecture examples, Gur-e Amir Samarkanda

  • The Ali Qapu Palace Isfahan Iran: it was the residence area of the Persian Shad and is located in the Imam Square of Isfahan. It is worth noting that paintings and stucco decorate this work of art. For his part, Shah Abbas who belonged to the Safavid dynasty, turned out to be the great promoter of the city and the architect creator of this wonder.

The Ali Qapu Palace Isfahan, and example of islamic art architecture

  • Madrasa Ben Yousef, Marrakech: it is one of the most beautiful works of Morocco. It is an architecture of singular beauty belonging to the Islamic art and it was raised by means of the dynasty of Meriníes, who were those that reigned in Morocco, as well as in the Iberian Peninsula, during the XIII and XV centuries.

An example of Islamic architecture, Madrasa Ben Yousef, Marrakech

  • Dome of the Rock, Palestine: This dome is located on the Esplanade of the Mosques in Jerusalem. It is called to be a universal work for its marvel belonging to the Islamic Art. It is an octagonal plant, covered with ceramic frosted with authentic Persian design that culminates in a golden dome, it is said that it was raised in the place for Mohammed to ascend to heaven.

Islamic architecture, Dome of the Rock, Palestine


Similar to any current of culture and art, the Muslim religion and Islamic Art has some very unique characteristics, which fully identify it.

Among these characteristics, the following stand out:

  • This type of art has its origin in Byzantine, Paleochristian and Roman art, since these were the artistic modalities that came to precede it.
  • For the Muslim religion, decoration, geometry and engravings constitute artistic elements very inherent to this kind of art.
  • Among its most frequent artistic techniques are stucco, tiling, relief structure and Byzantine mosaic.
  • Among the materials most commonly selected for its development are brick, tiles, plaster and wood.
  • This type of art is iconoclastic, which means that the representation of God in images is forbidden.

Islamic Art Decoration

Regarding the decoration of Islamic art, it should be noted that much of what makes it up from the ornamental point of view comes from inheritance. Muslim artists focused on creating a new way of expression and, for this, they used 4 basic elements: vegetal motifs, calligraphy, figurative and geometric.

These form a profuse decoration characterized by horror vacui. The decorative elements of greatest use in this type of art were plaster and plaster, as well as masonry and brick. The Islamic builder initially chose the square as an organizing element of space that, later, select the cubic sphere to proceed to the development of the domes.

Moroccan Mosaic Tiles

For its part, this type of culture has a rich aesthetic in everything related to multicolored ornaments, textures and reliefs, which is the reason why it has managed to maintain over the centuries with the ability to cover any space, giving it a personality and a very unique identity.

The Arab mosaic is a unique proof due to its architectural forms and its diversity of compositions, capable of enhancing any environment where they are placed.

Islamic geometry moroccan mosaic tile

Their universality is of such magnitude that these fantastic mosaics have been called "advanced decagonal quasi-crystalline geometrics", a criterion maintained by Harvard and Princeton University, because their symmetry has perfect motifs dating back to the Islamic civilization.

Those who stood out in the commissions of the composition of the mosaics were the mathematicians, since they constituted a figure that maintained a position of great rank within the Arab culture.

It is said that they used rulers and compasses to elaborate the patterns that were later applied to the tiles. These patterns were called girih and were composed of a set of 5 polygons, a pentagon, a decagon, a hexagon, a diamond and a "tie".

Each motif was developed individually, but when the reproduction was presented on a large scale, it managed to form some geometric distortions.

For his part, Roger Penrose, a very famous British mathematician, managed to demonstrate that thick and thin tiles that were diamond-shaped, could form a non-repeating pattern with a rotational symmetry, which meant that you could rotate it less than 360° within a fixed point, maintaining the vision of its shape before starting to rotate it.

The structure of the mosaic, closely related to quasicrystals, was the reason for Daniel Shechtan to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, since he was the discoverer of quasicrystals, defined as patterns of atoms that at first were thought impossible and that he defined as "the fascinating mosaics of the Islamic world reproduced at the level of atoms and never repeated".

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