Anonymous Art

Both Islamic and European art was the work of anonymous artists. (One notable exception to this rule is in the realm of books and manuscripts. Certain Islamic calligraphers were famous in their day.) What does this say about individual and corporate identity? The status of artists? Our modern notion of artistic genius?


Beauty was defined in the Middle Ages as a balance of form and shape, and sometimes included the brilliant use of color. Many everyday objects for use by wealthy households were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished. This suggests that people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.


Calligraphy is the most important element in Islamic art. It was considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Koran, a holy text written in Arabic. Interest in beautiful writing extends to all arts -- including metalwork, pottery, stone, inscriptions on palaces.


Both Islamic and European medieval art is noted for using blue. This hue was very expensive to produce because it was produced using lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. Color is believed to have a strong emotional impact on the viewer. I see this shade of blue as evoking thoughts of heaven, royalty, grandeur, serenity. Do you agree?

Dish, ca. 1525-30; Ottoman; Iznik Attributed to Iznik, Turkey. Underglaze-painted composite body; H. 3 in. (7.62 cm), Diam. 15 1/2 in. (39.4 cm). Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.727)

Courtly Culture

Elite medieval culture was often a courtly culture. This reference to "courts" does not refer to courts of law but to centers of power around the body of the king, caliph or political leader. Islamic and European art produced by the courts is marked by figurative imagery -- ladies and warriors are depicted writing poems, falling in love and conspiring against their enemies.

Cursive Inscription

Beautiful writing was an important art form in medieval Islam. Both religious and secular works of art featured letters and script.

Decorative Arts

In Islamic cultures the decorative arts (textiles, illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, ceramics, glassware, etc.) provided the primary means of artistic expression. European medieval art included the decorative arts, but architecture, stained glass windows and sculpture were preeminent.

European Culture

European culture is the result of three influences: the inheritance of classical antiquity, the Christian tradition and the social and cultural patterns of the Germanic peoples. Put these three elements in a bottle, shake and you get European culture.

Figurative Art

Art that represents figures you would recognize from everyday life such as people, animals and things. Islamic art restricts figurative art to a private context while European art employs figurative art in religious, state and domestic contexts.


Islamic art is characterized by surface patterns composed of geometric or vegetal forms. Complex geometric designs and intricate patterns of organic shapes (such as the arabesque) produce an impression of unending repetition. This is intended as an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God.

Illuminated ManuscriptFeast of Sada

These handwritten books are decorated with gold or silver, striking colors, elaborate designs and miniature pictures. The pages are so richly decorated that they seem literally "illuminated."

The Feast of Sada: Leaf from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, Detached folio from an illustrated manuscript, ca. 1520-22; Safavid Sultan Muhammad, Artist (attributed to) Iranian; Attributed to Iran Opaque colors, ink, silver, and gold on paper; Painting: 10 13/16 x 9 1/16 in. (27.4 x 23 cm); Entire Page: 18 1/2 x 12 5/8 in. (47 x 32 cm) Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.2)

Manuscripts and Writing

Books and writing were key to medieval civilizations. The portability of manuscripts resulted in the transmission of ideas from one region to another and from one period to another.

Medieval European Art

I define medieval European art as beginning with the Romanesque style in 1000 and concluding with the end of Gothic art in the mid-15th century. The study of medieval art is structured around the twin pillars of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Medieval art served a number of important functions: it told stories, prompted mediation or prayer, displayed social status, helped cement individual or corporate identities, etc. When I think of medieval art, I see Gothic spires on cathedrals,richly-colored stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts and the Duc de Berry's Le Très Riches Heures.

Medieval Islamic Art

I define medieval Islamic Art as describing the art created in the service of Islam but also characterizing secular art produced in the lands under Islamic rule or influence during the 9th through 14th centuries.


Present in both Islamic and European cultures. These are complex institutions that served a variety of individual and societal needs. In the West monasteries preserved literacy, the learning of the classical past and fostered the arts associated with manuscripts.

Nonfigurative Art

Art that does not include representations of animals, people, houses or other figurative elements. Religious Islamic art during the Middle Ages was abstract. Because the Koran explicitly forbids anything that smacks of idols or idolatry, religious art featured nonrepresentational decoration.

Jali ScreenOrnamental

Medieval art betrays a love of surface ornamentation. Rich decorative patterns, both abstract and figurative, are an important characteristic of medieval Islamic and European art.


Art and material culture helped focused thoughts on spiritual matters. They prompted prayer and meditation. As such, art objects were an avenue to the divine.

Queen of Heaven

Devotion to the Virgin Mary, often called the Queen of Heaven, was a key aspect of medieval art in the West. Do you see any change in the representations of Mary throughout the medieval era? What can we infer about the status of women within the medieval Church from the veneration of Mary and other female saints?


A relic is the remains of a martyred Christian. Relics were usually bones or fragments of hair, clothing. The word was invented in 13th-century Europe, and this reflects the importance of the material body to medieval European spirituality. Many medieval Christians understood physicality as a means to the divine. One can interpret such manipulation of the material body as a type of performance art.

Royal Patronage

Royal patronage played an important role in the making of European and Islamic art. For example, the construction of mosques and other religious buildings was the responsibility of the ruler and the prerogative of high court officials.

SaintsSt. Andrew

Saints and martyrs played an important role in the life of medieval Christians. Why were saints such a key part of European Christian spirituality?

Saint Andrew, possibly ca. 1330, Simone Martini (Italian, Sienese, active by 1315, died 1344). Tempera on wood, gold ground; 22 1/2 x 14 7/8 in. (57.2 x 37.8 cm). Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941 (41.100.23)

Stained Glass

Huge stained glass windows filled the churches and cathedrals of medieval Europe with what contemporaries called "holy light." This colored light symbolized the glory and magnificence of God. Stained glass windows usually tell Biblical stories or depict the lives of saints.

Warrior Culture

This is the culture of elite courtly society in the Middle Ages. Looking at art as historical evidence, what can you say about the world view of warrior culture in the Islamic and among the kingdoms of Europe? What values, attitudes do you see embedded in these works?

Webs of Culture

Cultures share information, cultural forms, rituals and ways of life. The early medieval period for the Islamic Empire and Europe was marked by waves of invasions. In addition, crusades and trade marked important means of cross-cultural fertilization.