Biomorphic patterns in Islamic art – Tracing the origin
Islamic biomorphic patterns are usually called arabesques. The term ‘arabesque’ is relatively new; it came to Europe after Napoleon’s campaign in Africa. “In a broad sense of this term, the arabesque includes ornamentation in stylized plant forms and strictly geometrical interlacing work” .
Stylized plant forms represent the sense of rhyme which is a main characteristic of artistic expression in Islamic art along with a spirit of geometry 
Islam was born in the world divided between two powerful empires – Byzantine and Persian. The first one absorbed Mediterranean and the second spread from Central Asia to Yemen and from Eastern Anatolia to upper Euphrates . Byzantium represented Greco-Roman cultural tradition and Persia – Sasanian artistic traditions that influenced art of the world a lot. With the spread of Islam, “initially at least, those artists who had worked under Byzantine or Sasanian patronage continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons. The first examples of Islamic art therefore rely on earlier techniques, styles, and forms reflecting this blending of classical and Iranian decorative themes and motifs” .
Main biomorphic motifs that were inherited by Islamic art from great pre-Islamic artistic traditions can be roughly divided into three groups: tree of life, islimi and flower rosettes. Tree of life is a depiction of a plant with a clear origin, sometimes with fruits and flowers on branches. Islimi pattern is a wavy line, often called ‘vine’, with stylized leaves often turned to spiral, sometimes with flowers, buds, and fruits. Flower rosette is a depiction of a stylized flower, initially in full blossom.
The origins of biomorphic patterns go back to an era of agricultural worship. Agricultural worship was born in the times of nomad settlement and was based on the idea of fertility. Fertility of nature and soil was widely praised and the emerging crops had become a symbol of life. Apart from sprouts there are other elements representing agricultural symbolism: water, nourishing seeded fields, and sky – the source of water, and sun, warming everything. These three elements of fertility were represented in art by wavy lines and circles. Later wavy lines gave way to islimi patterns decorated with leaves and flowers. Circles as solar signs representing the idea of moving – the sun travels in the sky each day and changes its way during the year – were enriched with radiuses to look like spinning wheels. These spinning wheels later developed to flower rosettes. The tree of life represented the idea of an Earth and Heaven connection and the idea of fertility at the same time.
Titus Burckhardt in his book ‘Art of Islam. Language and meaning’ points out the connection of islimi patterns to zoomorphic art of Scythians and Sarmatians. Hunting worship of nomads preceded agricultural worship and was represented by animal depictions – usually it was bronze and iron animals turned to spiral or double spiral. The continuous spiral of animals in pursuit could “give rise to a plantlike composition, and it is here that we are brought back to the history of arabesque” 
With time Islamic art developed its own unique artistic expression. Biomorphic ornaments, geometry patterns and calligraphy became the main ways of surface decoration. Vegetal patterns in Islamic art started to represent earthly Paradise. Looking back to the history of biomorphic pattern in Islamic art we can easily recognize the time and place of each particular pattern depiction. That is how much the genius of craftsmen contributed to the tradition. We can also say without doubt that the biomorphic pattern depicted belongs to Islamic art, and it proves the strength of the tradition. The history of biomorphic pattern shows how innovation with respect to tradition makes traditional art alive. The latest recognizable style of vegetal decoration belongs to the reign of Qajar dynasty (1779-1924) in Iran, thought Western influence on depiction dominates. After that time images in Islamic art were mostly copied, sometimes with a great skill. Being only a bow to a certain period of history, coping keeps traditional Islamic art alive but does not develop it.
1. Brend, Barbara. Islamic Art. Harvard University Press (March 1, 1992)
2. Burckhardt, Titus. Art of Islam, Language and Meaning. World Wisdom; Commemorative Edition edition (March 16, 2009)
3. The Nature of Islamic Art. Article from the web-site of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna/hd_orna.htm
State Hermitage Museum web-site. http://www.hermitagemuseum.org
The Metropolitan Museum of Art web-site. http://www.metmuseum.org
Cormack, Robin, Vassiliki, Maria. Byzantium 330-1453. Royal Academy of Arts (December 31, 2008)
This article was originally published in Islamic Arts and Architecture online magazine islamic-arts.org on October 18, 2013