Foliage Motifs in Islamic Art Before Mongol Invasion

In the middle of 13th century Mongols came to Eastern Iran. In 1256 they founded Ilkhanid dynasty that reigned in Iraq till 1340 and in Iran till 1353. In a field of art Mongol invasion brought Chinese influence to Islamic artistic tradition, Chinese way of floral motif depiction changed the face of Islamic art.

Bowl, Binkat (modern Uzbekistan), 10th century, Samanid or Ghaznavid dynasty, Mardjani collection

But the period between the genesis of Islam and the Mongol invasion has a lot of interesting facts to observe. Great historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar (1929-2011), in his book ‘The Formation of Islamic Art’ points out that any kind of change in art experiences two moments. The first one is absolute time that gives the start to any kind of change and the second one is relative time which ‘is defined by the moment when a culture as a whole has accepted and is transformed by changes which in themselves may be dated precisely’ [2]. For Islamic art the formation started with a birth of Islam and a period from 7th to 13th century was a time when truly Muslim forms derived as a result of synthesis of Islamic faith and local artistic traditions.

7th -8th centuries and 11th -12th centuries experienced a rapid spread of Islam. Certain geographical place and historical time in Islamic history was represented by a ruling dynasty. Some dynasties left more artifacts than the others. In early history of Islamic biomorphic patterns Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Samanid, Buyid and Ghaznavid, and also Seljuk ‘styles’ of depiction are the most recognizable.

Umayyad dynasty ruled Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Iraq in 661-750, and a part of modern Spain in 711-1031. The foliage decoration in Umayyad time was very close to Byzantine and Ancient Greek vines, palmettes, flower rosettes and trees. Mosaics of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Great Mosque in Damascus, Great Mosque of Cordova, wood carvings of Al-Aqsa mosque, stone carvings and mosaics of Syrian and Palestine desert palaces and castles, decorations of royal residence of Madinat al-Zahra in Cordoba show no unique Islamic features. Grabar emphasizes that among vegetal motifs ‘it does not seem that a single new design was invented in early Islamic times. What did change enormously was the geographical distribution of ornament’ [2].

During Abbasid dynasty reign in Iraq, Iran, Eastern Mediterranean (totally from 750 to 1258) so-called ‘beveled style’ of biomorphic decoration developed. ‘Beveled style’ motif is a ‘symmetrical, abstract vegetal form’ [4], showing a repetition of curved lines with spiral terminals. Abbasid caliphate founded the city of Samarra in Iraq. Samarra architecture was lavishly decorated with stucco carved or molded into variety of designs. Stucco was used in pre-Islamic Iran, but at the time of Abbasids the use of it spread rapidly all over the Islamic world. Wood carved and painted on ceramic beveled motifs was also widespread in Muslim decoration at this time.

Samanid, Buyid and Ghaznavid dynasties ruled Iran and Khorasan province in 10th-11th centuries. A number of ceramic ware with such vegetal decorations like palmettes, pomegranate fruits, flower rosettes and bouquets were found [1]. They are highly abstract and sometimes remind children’s drawings.

The art of Fatimid dynasty is very hard to discuss, as a there are not so many objects left. Lots of artifacts were looted or lost in 11th century. A couple of great books were written about Fatimid art recently, but unfortunately I do not have access to them at the moment. I will be happy to tell you more about Fatimid foliage decoration as soon as I get a change to read these books.

The art of Seljuk sultanate stands apart from all other Islamic art as it experienced an influence of zoomorphic nomad style. We will cover it later.

In early Islamic time we can already see the attempts to transfer images from one media to another – one can find the similar motifs on metal, wood, carved out of stone or stucco, painted on ceramics, tessellated in mosaics or woven in textiles. Later the migration of a motif and its adoption to a different media will be extremely widespread.

The symbolism of vegetal ornaments in early Islamic art is vague. It could have symbolized earthly paradise, but most likely the parallel between the garden of paradise and floral ornamentation came to Islamic art later, when artists deliberately gave a meaning of paradise to their artworks. Isfahan Shah Mosque decoration is a good example of it – it is easy to see the links between the colours of islimi decoration and paradise description. In early Islamic art the meaning of foliage patterns was most likely the same as in pre-Islamic time, they suggested or evoked life. Without representing life, they provided the sense of growth and movement [3].



1) Classical Art of Islamic World from 9 to 19th Centuries. Ninety-nine Names of God. Exhibition Catalogue. Mardjani Publishing House, Moscow, 2013.

2) Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Yale University Press, New Heaven and London, 1987.

3) Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Bollingen Series, 38, Princeton University Press, 1992.

4) Metropolitan Museum of Art, a collection piece description

Photo credits

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art web-site.

  • Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology University of Oxford.

  • Classical Art of Islamic World from 9 to 19th Centuries. Ninety-nine Names of God. Exhibition Catalogue. Mardjani Publishing House, Moscow, 2013.






This article was originally published in Islamic Arts and Architecture online magazine on December 14, 2013

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