Islamic Metal Art

At first, Islam borrowed extensively from the artistic traditions of the conquered lands: Judean, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Cretan, Byzantine, and Sassanian.

 

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The craftsmen of the Islamic period founded an artistic language that became a recognizable characteristic of Islamic metalwork and which has continued with only minor changes to this day. Most of the Islamic metal objects are functional but artistic in their style.

The metals used were beaten copper, sheet or cast brass, cast bronze, cast high tin bronze. (Weapons were of Damascus steel.) The minorities of the metal artifacts that are made of precious metals (gold and silver) were crafted for ornamental purposes: The luxury items are richly decorated to the delight the beholder.

Stages of Islamic Metalwork

Under the Abbasid caliphate in the ninth century, Baghdad became the focus of the Muslim world, and the city attracted artists, poets, and musicians from all over the Arab world. During that period, brass — which was cheap and durable and easily worked and mass-produced — was used extensively, both for everyday utensils and luxury ware. The best brassware was made in Khurasan in eastern Iraq, where there was an abundant supply of copper and tin and a long tradition of metalworking.

Yet historians tell of the jewel-encrusted gold and silver vessels from which the Abbasid caliphs ate and drank.

When Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his Mongol army invaded northeastern Iraq, they laid waste to the renowned metal workshops of Khurasan. A few of the craftsmen, however, fled westwards and set up new centres for the production of fine metalwork in Mosul, set on the banks of the Tigris River. Later, important centres were also established in Damascus and Cairo.

Most of the metal artifacts of this period were luxury items made of bronze and inlaid with silver. The glittery decorative motifs include bands, medallions, figurative designs, scrolls, inscriptions, and arabesques, which entirely cover the vessel.

From the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in Egypt and Syria and in the modern era, Islamic metalwork is best known for its intricately designed bronze vessels inlaid with precious metals, mainly silver. The craftsmen refined the inlay techniques that had been in use since the Roman and Sassanian times.

This art form, originating in eastern Iran, spread to Syria and Egypt, especially Damascus and Cairo. In Damascus it became particularly popular; hence it became renowned as “Damascus Ware.” This technique reached a peak in the thirteenth and fourteen centuries, when the most elaborate Islamic metalwork was produced.

When the Mamluks ruled Damascus and Cairo in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they amassed great wealth from conquest and subjugation. They became very important patrons of inlaid metalwork and they lavishly ordered artifacts with dedicatory inscriptions and blazons that glorified their name. In order to highlight the ornamentation, the craftsmen increased the proportion of zinc in the copper alloy, lending the brass a golden hue.

The Inlay Technique

The inlay technique is based upon the application of relatively soft metals — copper, gold, and especially silver — to objects made of harder metals, such as bronze and brass. Initially, in the twelfth century, hammering wire into tiny grooves that had been previously cut into the object created all designs. This was a laborious process; artifacts to be inlaid were chiselled to about 1-mm deep recesses along the pattern lines, the chisel marks were left rough, the sides undercut, and then silver wire was hammered in the cuts. Encrustation with small pieces of gold foil was done in a similar manner. When cheap metal objects inlaid with silver were burnished, they looked like costly silver-inlaid gold vessels.

In a later period, the fourteenth century, when there existed a shortage of silver, the metalsmiths economized on the expensive metal by hammering the inlaid designs onto the roughened surface of the vessel. Though this process was more economical, the inlays had a tendency to peel off rather easily.

The Damascene steel sword first came to prominence during the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries AD. During these years, one Syrian coppersmith said, the European crusaders came to fear the sharpness and strength of their opponent’s thin, curved blades. Swords made in Damascus garnered an almost mythical reputation – the blade was said to be able to cut a piece of silk dropped onto it, as well as being able to break other sword blades and even rock without losing its sharp edge.

Oddly enough, the technique to make Damascus steel is not believed to have originated in Syria. Instead, it is generally held that it originated in India and Sri Lanka and came to Syria via Persia. Damascus steel was a hot-forged steel which, as well as being famous for its strength, was also unique in that the metal had a visible grain pattern.

Mortars, oil lamps, and bowls cast in bronze with copper inlay make more affordable souvenirs or gifts. Production and export of these types of metal goods became popular in the thirteenth century when the centre of inlaid metalwork moved to Syria. Boxes, vases, and candlesticks manufactured by artisans in Damascus were exported to Europe from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries.
Beautiful inlaid metal exports were revived in the late eighteenth century. The items desired had changed, so the smiths provided large shell cases inlaid with gold and copper, used as holders for umbrellas or walking sticks in European restaurants and tourist hotels. The processes became more specialized: o­ne artisan produced the main piece cast or wrought from bronze or brass. Then another artist who specifically does the decoration performs the inlay metal process in his workshop.

Motifs and Symbols

A major theme underlying the symbolism attached to Islamic artistic artifacts, was that of the universe and its corollary and world kingship. “God being the King of the world and ‘the king’ — whichever ruler it might be intended — ‘the shadow of God on earth’.” The world is symbolized in Islamic literature, both secular and theological, as the celestial sphere or rather the hemispheric dome in the sky, as seen by the human eye — the upturned bowl (tas-i nigun) and a rotating dome ( gunbad-i gardan). These two sets of images are the key to the motifs on Islamic art. This theme was set in the patterns of the metalwork by the shape, through calligraphy or in the use of symbols.

During the Fatimid era (909-1071), brass vessels are simple and functional. Sometimes Kufic inscriptions and decorative motifs showing birds, animals, geometric patterns and vine tendrils are engraved on them. The representation of the human figure was forbidden according to a Koranic edict, which regards the human form in art as rivalling God’s creations.

During the two-hundred year Seljuq reign in the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, which is known as the classic period or the golden age of Islamic art, new decorative and innovative motifs made their appearance. The formalized, stylized motifs were replaced with forms that reflected the artist’s urge for realism. The same was true in the crafting of metalwork.

At times, during this era, metalsmiths departed from the basic, functional forms and gave their vessels animal shapes. The inscriptions on the vessels are humanized. In this period, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements (hastae) were added to the Arabic script on the vessels. These patterns departed from the aniconic approach of Islam in the free use of figures and symbols. One explanation is that artistic conceptions were Persian, for Persian literature and art is replete with metamorphic allusions.

In the fourteenth century, under Mamluk rule, elegant metal objects were made for personal use, and ceremonial objects were inlaid with silver and gold. To this were added Eastern motifs such as composite imaginary figures and a repertoire of vegetable and animal forms. The inscriptions were etched in the ornate thuluth script (one of the many forms of Arabic writing) which became the hallmark of Mamluk metalwork. The thuluth inscriptions are framed in bands separated by medallions; the inscriptions are within roundels that radiate from the center.

Conclusion

Under the Burji Mamluks — from the late fourteenth to the early fifteenth centuries on — the economic power of the Mamluk sultanate declined in the wake of plague and epidemics, famine, renewed Mongol conquest under Timur the Great, and internal dissention.

The metalworking crafts dwindled and use of precious metals for inlay ceased to be replaced by brass vessels decorated by engraving and with the addition of bitumen as background, and by engraved tinned copper utensils.

Only in the sixteenth century, under the Qa-ithbay regime, did a revival occur in Islamic metalwork, continuing through the Ottoman era. The metal vessels of this period preserve the traditional forms, but their decorative motifs changed which depicted the lifestyle of rulers of the Muslim empires. Also, greater use was made of steel.

Western colonialism in the nineteenth century brought about a standstill and degeneration in Islamic art and culture. With the fall of the great dynasties, the artists and craftsmen lost their devoted patrons, and turned to marketing their products en masse to the growing tourist trade. The studios that trained craftsmen closed, and western aesthetic concepts superseded ancient local traditions.

The arts of Damascene metallurgy have a centuries long history. Syria still produces all kinds of metal products that are prized around the world. Damascus swords and knives refer to a process forging two or more metals at a time. This makes multiple laminated layers which are then tempered, shaped and sharpened. These beautifully crafted blades are highly desirable artistic pieces more for display than use today. The distinctive surface patterns o­n the blades result from carbide-forming elements in the forged metals.


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