An exhibition being held in Russia's State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg explores the theme of "Architecture and its Representations in Islamic Art".
Architecture was one of the first expressions of the cultural identity of Islamic society, and remains so to this day. Testimonials to this art form exist not only in the buildings that have survived but also in the legacy that these traditions have left in the other arts.
The most detailed evidence of this impact is through the medium of painting. The exhibition Architecture and its Representations in Islamic Art explores this aspect of the architectural image.
Miniature painting had existed for centuries in the Islamic Middle East but underwent a dramatic and series of developments in the Iranian world between the 14th and 16th Centuries. The most striking feature of architecture in book-painting is the emphasis on decoration. Each individual surface is seen as a vehicle for colour and pattern, often to a dream-like degree.
In much of Persian painting, architectural structures are effectively dissolved into a series of decorative elements and patterned planes. With surface decoration used in such depictions as a stand-in for material structure, there develops an other-worldly quality to this imagery. At times, the impression is of a series of highly decorated sliding screens, or a house of cards. It may have been that Persian painters felt external decoration to be the most characteristic aspect of any given building, making it the best subject for their purposes. Some later developments in miniature painting eventually took a more naturalistic approach to architecture.
Buildings began to have more weight and solidity in later Mughal painting, as the influential style of the Persian painters working at the Mughal court was gradually combined with pre-existing Indian modes of representation. The overwhelming emphasis on architectural decoration in much of Islamic miniature painting was not pure invention on the part of the painters. Decorated surfaces were very much present in true architecture, although not to the same degree as in miniature painting.
A range of architectural elements and forms of applied decoration â beams, capitals, tiles, ceiling panels, muqarnas, textiles and arched panels â from the length and breadth of the Islamic world are displayed alongside the painted interpretations of architecture. Through the juxtaposition of individual architectural components with their painted interpretations, the remarkable wealth of architectural decoration that came to characterise so many different regional styles in Islamic architecture is revealed.
This exhibition also includes a number of representations of fantastic structures in the medium of ceramic, illustrating the pervasive appeal of architectural imagery for artists of the Mamluk, Safavid and Ottoman periods.
Furthermore, the display will open with a markedly different form of the architectural image: a group of plans and topographical images of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet at Medina, in several different media.
As the exhibition theme is architecture and its representations, the display takes a conceptual rather than a strictly chronological or geographical approach. Among the themes represented, in addition to the two Holy Cities, are religious and funerary monuments.
Calligraphy also plays a part in this exhibition, with the use of architectural decoration to embellish the written word. Domes and arches are the most likely additions, although blocks of text have also been used by calligraphers to create a powerful expression of architectural space.
Straightforward elements from buildings have been featured to show the tremendous variety and exquisite designs that have existed. Equally fascinating are the many objects of daily life that owe a debt to architectural inspiration. Among the most popular of these are the characteristic medieval Persian inkwells that probably mimic tents.
In cases such as tents and a wide range of pavilions, the only physical record of their existence is provided by the objects that copied their form or the paintings that depict them.
Architecture and its Representations in Islamic Art at the State Hermitage Museum. Ends February 2012. The entire exhibition, which is sponsored by the Agha Khan Museum, will then travel to Malaysia.
Lucien de Guise, "The many faces of Islamic architecture" New Straits Times December 11, 2011
"UPCOMING: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia" Agha Khan Museum November, 2011
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today