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The Exuberant Use of Color

The epigraphic and geometric designs commonly used in Islamic art were often enhanced by color, and the exuberant use of color is another hallmark of Islamic art. The Arabic language itself has a particularly rich chromatic vocabulary, and in it concepts can easily be associated through similarities in morphology. The Arabic root kh-d-r, for example, gives rise to khudra (greenness), akhdar (green), khudara (greens or herbs), and al-khadra (the verdant, or the heavens). Blue, the color of the sky in the western tradition, is often conflated with green in the Islamic lands, where the spectrum is traditionally divided into yellow, red, and green. Tonality was less important than luminosity and saturation, probably because of the sun-drenched environment in much of the region.

In the early Islamic period various philosophical schools elaborated the Aristotelian theory of color, and this interest in color was taken up by mystics, who saw parallels between the phenomenon of colors and the inner vision of the divine. The symbolic use of color runs throughout much Islamic literature. The great Persian poet Nezami (ca. 1141–1203 or 1217), for example, structured his classic poem, Haft paykar (Seven portraits) around the seven colors (haft rang) traditional in Persian thought (red, yellow, green, and blue complemented by black, white, and sandalwood). In this poem the ideal ruler, exemplified by the Sasanian king Bahram Gur, visits seven princesses, each housed in a pavilion of a different color; the princesses recount seven stories, which can be interpreted as the seven stations of human life, the seven aspects of human destiny, or the seven stages along the mystical way. The seven colored pavilions of the Haft paykar became favorite subjects for book illustration in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iran.

One of the most famous manuscripts of Nezami's poem has an unusually long and witty colophon that recounts the manuscript's peregrinations and shows how important these illustrated manuscripts were to rulers of the time. The Timurid prince Abul-Qasim Babur, ruler of Herat (in northwestern Afghanistan) from 1449 to 1457, commissioned the calligrapher Azhar to transcribe the manuscript, but it was unfinished at the prince's death. After Jahan Shah (r. 1438-67), the Qaraqoyunlu ruler of Azerbaijan, sacked Herat a year later, the manuscript passed to Jahan Shah's son Pir Budak. It then went to the Aqqoyunlu ruler Khalil Sultan (r. 1478), who commissioned the calligrapher Abd al-Rahman al-Khwarazmi (known as Anisi) to finish copying the text and two artists, Shaykhi and Darvish Muhammad, to illustrate it. Still unfinished at Khalil Sultan's death in 1478, the manuscript passed to his brother Yaqub (r. 1478–90). He also died before the book was finished, and the manuscript ultimately passed to the Safavid shah Ismail I (r. 1501–24), founder of the Safavid dynasty, under whose patronage the last of the nineteen illustrations were completed.

The painting Bahram Gur in the Green Pavilion exemplifies the lush style of manuscript illustration practiced at the Aqqoyunlu court. It was probably added by the artist Shaykhi when the manuscript was in the possession of the sultan Yaqub. It shows the Sasanian monarch reclining with his writing table and books beside him, listening to one of his ladies read a poem while another massages his feet. The reclining figure may actually represent the young Aqqoyunlu prince, who would have been less than twenty years old at the time. The nominal subject, the prince in the pavilion, however, is engulfed in a riot of fantastic vegetation. Nature bursts from the constraint of the frame, as lollipop trees with imbricated leaves sprout among rocks concealing human and animal faces. The colors are particularly vivid, with acid greens set against rosy reds and brilliant blues.

The Exuberant Use of Color

(Right) Color was used symbolically and extravagantly in much of Islamic art and culture. The Persian poet Nezami structured his classic poem, Haft paykar, around the seven colors traditional in Persian thought. In a fine manuscript of the poem prepared for several fifteenth-century princes, the painter Shaykhi used brilliant color to depict Bahram Gur in the Green Pavilion.

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This flamboyant color typical of the Aqqoyunlu court style can be contrasted with the carefully modulated style that is associated with contemporary Herat and exemplified in the work of Bihzad (ca. 1450–1535) the most famous Persian painter, and the one whose name is attached (rightly or wrongly) to more paintings than any other artist. Bihzad's masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be The Seduction of Yusuf. The painting illustrates a manuscript of the Persian poet Sadi (ca. 1213–92) entitled Bustan (Orchard), transcribed in 1488 for the library of the Timurid ruler Sultan Husayn Mirza by the most renowned calligrapher of the age, Sultan Ali Mashhadi. Sadi's text, written on uncolored paper in cloud bands at the top, middle, and bottom of the illustration, mentions the seduction of Yusuf, the biblical Joseph, by Potiphar's wife, known in Islamic tradition as Zulaykha, but nothing in the text requires Bihzad's elaborate architectural setting. Instead, this setting is described in the mystical poem, Yusuf and Zulaykha, written by the Timurid poet Jami (1414–92) five years before the Sadi manuscript was transcribed. Four lines from Jami's poem are inscribed in white on blue around the arch in the center of the painting. According to Jami, Zulaykha built a palace with seven splendid rooms that were decorated with erotic paintings of herself with Yusuf. She led the unwary Yusuf from one room to the next, locking the doors behind her until they reached the innermost chamber. There, she threw herself at Yusuf, but he fled from her grasp through the seven locked doors, which miraculously opened before him.

The Exuberant Use of Color

Medieval potters revolutionized the industry by developing a technique to paint on the surface of a ceramic with designs that did not run into the glaze. A black heron struts across the turquoise-glazed surface of this twelfth-century Syrian bowl.

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Just as Jami's text is an allegory of the soul's search for divine love and beauty, Bihzad's image invites mystical contemplation. The splendid palace stands for the material world, the seven rooms represent the seven climes, and Yusuf's beauty is a metaphor for God’s. As there was no witness, Yusuf could have yielded to Zulaykha's passion, but he realized that God was all-seeing and all-knowing. The seven locked doors, which form the matrix of the composition, can be opened only by God. This brilliant image transcends the literal requirements of the text and evokes the mystical themes that were prominent in contemporary literature and society. Bihzad was obviously proud of his creation, because he signed it on the architectural panel over the window in the room on the upper left and dated it 893 (corresponding to 1488) in the final blue-and-white cartouche on the arch following the verses from Jami's poem.

The Exuberant Use of Color

Metalworkers exploited the chromatic possibilities of metals by inlaying copper, silver, gold, and a black bituminous substance into brass and bronze. The master metalworker Muhammad ibn al-Zayn inlaid this large basin with an extraordinary range of figural scenes, many depicting life in the Mamluk lands around 1300.

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Bihzad's masterpiece shows a sophisticated but subdued use of color, in which blues and greens predominate but are tempered by complementary warm colors, especially a bright orange. The carefully modulated use of color leads the eye through the complex architectural setting to focus on Zulaykha, striking in her flamboyant orange robe, a stark contrast to Yusuf, who is dressed in cool green. The colors are jewel-like; the fine quality pigments were made from such expensive minerals as lapis lazuli and gold, which were carefully ground, mixed with binder, and applied with fine brushes. The colors appear all the more brilliant in the dream-like world of Persian book painting, as they were unmodulated by cast shadows or atmospheric perspective, two pictorial techniques that were only introduced into Persian painting from European art in the seventeenth century.

The Exuberant Use of Color

(Left) The coloristic effects of the mosaics decorating the interior of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were enhanced by a brilliantly painted and gilded ceiling and lavish use of marble paneling.

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The use of brilliant color was not limited to fancy books made in the Persian world in the later centuries. The spirited use of color is found in most Islamic art from an early date. Potters in the Islamic world hid drab earthenwares under cloaks of brightly colored slips and glazes. The most significant invention for the future history of ceramics in the Islamic lands, as well as in China and Europe, was underglaze decoration, in which a fine and white ceramic body provided an ideal surface for painting in colored metallic oxides. This painted surface was then covered by a transparent alkaline glaze, which protected the painted surface but, unlike lead glazes, did not cause the pigments to run together during firing.

Similarly, one of the most important contributions of medieval Islamic metalworkers was the development of the inlay technique, in which the monochrome object, usually made from brass or bronze, was enlivened with inlays in gold, silver, and copper, as on the Bobrinski Bucket. Other objects, such as magnificent basins to be used for handwashing before and after eating, were inlaid with inscriptions and figural scenes worked in silver and a black bituminous substance.

Color is also one of the most distinctive features of Islamic architecture, for glittering azure domes and dazzling expanses of multicolored tile decorate many of the best known buildings. The first great monument of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock, originally had polychrome and gold glass mosaic covering both inside and outside. The coloristic effects of the interior mosaics were enhanced by a brilliantly painted and gilded ceiling and a lavish use of marble. The dadoes (lower walls) were decorated with panels of quartered marble, sliced and arranged so that the natural grain would form symmetrical patterns. In some cases vegetal motifs were inlaid in black mastic to contrast against the white marble. The same color combination was extended to the arches, which were constructed of alternating black and white voussoirs (the wedge-shaped pieces forming the arch).

This brightly colored style typical of Umayyad architecture set a precedent that was often repeated by later patrons. But just as the fragile mosaics on the exterior of the Dome of the Rock suffered from weathering, the coloristic effects on many other buildings, much like those on Greek temples and Romanesque churches, have often faded under a haze of dust and smog to uniform earth tones, giving an erroneous impression that only later buildings were brightly colored. In other cases, as under the puritanical Almohad dynasty, which ruled in Spain and Morocco in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rather plain exteriors and whitewashed interiors were preferred for mosques.

But many buildings were brightly colored. In the tenth century, for example, when one of the Umayyad caliphs of Spain decided to enlarge the congregational mosque at his capital of Córdoba, his builders attempted to imitate many of the coloristic effects of Umayyad architecture in Syria, although they knew these only at great remove. The original Córdoba mosque, completed in 786–87, had used an inventive system of double-tiered columns and arches to support the wooden roof, probably because only short, stubby columns were available from abandoned Visigothic buildings in the region. By stacking two short columns on top of each other, the mosque's designers could achieve the necessary height, although they needed to add intermediate arches to stiffen the inherently unstable construction. They unified this motley collection of columns and capitals with a striking design for the voussoirs of the arches, which were alternately of white stone and courses of red brick.

The Exuberant Use of Color

The area immediately in front of the mihrab added to the Great Mosque of Córdoba in 965 was elaborately decorated with intersecting arches supporting mosaic-covered vaults, clearly meant to recall the mosaic-covered buildings of Umayyad Syria.

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The striped effect of the two-tiered arches was maintained by later builders, who enlarged the mosque in the ninth and tenth centuries. These renovations culminated when the Umayyad caliph al-Hakam II (r. 961–76) expanded the prayer hall and added a dome over the center entrance to the addition and domes in front and on either side of the new mihrab. The screened area, which was connected to the palace by a passageway in the wall of the mosque facing Mecca, was a maqsura, an enclosure for the ruler, meant not to protect the caliph from harm (as the early maqsuras were said to function) but to emphasize the great pomp and ceremony with which the Umayyad caliph surrounded himself. These areas were distinguished by elaborate screens of intersecting arches and richly colored revetments in glass mosaic; the glass mosaics were clearly meant to evoke the great mosaics that decorated the Umayyad buildings of Syria. According to local Arabic histories, there were no laborers in Spain capable of executing these mosaics, so the caliph sent an ambassador to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, requesting him to send a workman to decorate the mosque. The emperor complied, and the ambassador returned with a master craftsman and sufficient mosaic cubes to complete the job.

Although the difficult technique of glass mosaic was infrequently repeated in later centuries and usually with some reference to the Umayyads of Syria, multicolor revetment in glazed ceramic tile became a hallmark of later Islamic architecture from Spain and North Africa to the borders of India. By the late eleventh century builders in the eastern Islamic lands had reached the ultimate exploitation of carved- and patterned-brick decoration and were ready to experiment with glazed revetment. They began by incorporating small pieces of cut tile, mainly colored a light (turquoise) blue, which was easy to make from the readily available copper deposits in Iran. Soon they expanded the surfaces covered, and by the fourteenth century the palette was extended to include dark blue (colored with cobalt), black (manganese), and white as well as green and ocher. Including the buff natural color of the brick surface, this brought the total number of colors to seven, the number of colors in the traditional Persian palette. With the expanded range of color came the elaboration of design, and geometric patterns gave way to naturalistic and floral designs, made by cutting small pieces from monochrome tiles and fitting the irregular pieces together.

The technique reached its apogee in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, alongside the development of Persian book painting. Some of the finest tile panels were prepared for the gargantuan palace that the Turkic conqueror Timur erected in his hometown of Shahr-i Sabz, but only fragments remain to attest to its original spendor. More can be seen at the Blue Mosque, built by the Qaraqoyunlu in their capital at Tabriz (in northwestern Iran) around 1465. The mosque takes its name from its superb tile revetment, which was never surpassed in later monuments.

Although in ruins, the Blue Mosque displays an unusual variety of tile decoration of magnificent quality. Seven-color tile mosaic covers the exterior and much of the interior walls above a marble dado. Particularly striking are the fluid arabesque motifs and the inscriptions, often set out in white or gold against a deep blue or green background. The building is a virtual catalog of tile techniques. Hexagonal dark blue glazed tiles covered the upper surfaces and vaults of the main chamber, and purple tiles overpainted in gold were set in the sanctuary. Luster tiles were set at the base of the cable molding on the entrance portal, one of the very rare instances of this technique in the fifteenth century. Highly embossed molded fragments of underglaze-painted tile remain on the corner buttresses.

Tile mosaic is a laborious and expensive technique because it is time-consuming to cut and fit the tiny pieces together. In the fifteenth century it was gradually replaced by a cheaper technique in which large tiles of uniform shape were painted with patterns worked in different colors of glaze. To prevent the glazes from running together during firing, they were separated by a greasy substance mixed with manganese, which left a matte black line between the colors after firing. The technique, known in Spanish as cuerda seca, is much faster than tile mosaic, but the colors are not as brilliant because they are all fired at one temperature.

The Exuberant Use of Color

Builders in the western Islamic lands decorated interiors with tilework combined with carved plaster and wood, as in the courtyard of the Attarin Madrasa (1325) in Fez, Morocco.

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Tile mosaic was also popular at the other end of the Islamic lands in the Maghreb or Islamic west, where it is known locally as zallij. The technique may have developed even earlier there, but it flowered during the fourteenth century under the Marinids in Morocco. In the eastern Islamic lands the predominant color was blue, whereas in the west the main colors were green and tan, usually on a white background. Lower walls were covered by tiled dadoes, which were normally surmounted by epigraphic friezes with the black letters formed by scraping through the glaze to the clay body. Upper walls were covered with elaborately carved stucco decoration and capped by wooden friezes, consoles, and cornices. Floors, unlike those in the east, often had glazed highlights or were completely covered in tiles. Even the piers and columns in courtyards were revetted in tile. The overall effect of such interiors is glistening, and the tripartite combination of tiled dado, stucco wall, and wooden superstructure remained standard in the region for centuries.

Perhaps the most refined coloristic effects were achieved in the buildings erected under the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent. Polished white marble that reflected light was played off against matte red sandstone that absorbed it. The effect was heightened by the use of pietra dura, multicolored inlay in such hard and rare stones as lapis, onyx, jasper, topaz, carnelian, and agate, which emphasized the jewel-like qualities of the building. The small tomb of Itimad al-Dawla, the minister of finance to the emperor of India, Jahangir (r. 1605–27), is like a jewelbox. Constructed by Nur Jahan, who was Itimad al-Dawla's daughter (and Jahangir's wife) after her father's death in 1622, the small tomb is decorated with traditional geometric designs and arabesques, combined with representational motifs of wine cups, vases with flowers, and cypress trees, visual allusions to the Quran's descriptions of Paradise. The intricate inlay in yellow, brown, gray, and black contrasting with the smooth white marble prefigures the later phase of Mughal decoration in which white marble was garnished with gold and precious stones. Elsewhere, particularly in more public settings, the repertory of designs and colors was somewhat narrower. For example, at the Taj Mahal, the tomb constructed by Jahangir's son, Shah Jahan, this decoration is restrained and used only for slender arabesques and extensive inscriptions done in black that constrast with the polished white marble.

Perhaps the most sumptuous of the Mughal private quarters were at the Red Fort in Delhi. They were part of Shahjahanabad, the quarter of the city laid out under the emperor Shah Jahan's auspices from 1639 to 1648. These palaces, now called the Rang Mahal (Painted Palace) and the Divan-i Khass (Private Audience Hall), are set behind the main audience hall and overlook the river. They are decorated with lavishly carved marble, paintings, and pietra dura inlay in gold and precious stones.

The Exuberant Use of Color

Mughal architects achieved some of the most refined coloristic effects by inlaying white marble with semiprecious colored stones, as on a panel from the Red Fort in Delhi, built by Shah Jahan (r. 1628–57).

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The extravagant use of color in Islamic art and architecture has been explained in several ways. It is often thought to be a reaction to the dull and monochromatic landscape in much of the traditional heartland of Islam, but this explanation is simplistic. Colors also had a wide range of symbolic associations in the Islamic lands, but these were often contradictory and meaningful only in specific geographical or chronological contexts. Thus, black was often associated with the mysterious Black Stone embedded in the Kaaba at Mecca toward which all Muslims pray, but black was also associated with vengeance and revolt, as in the black flag that became the standard of the Abbasid dynasty. In the Maghreb black could be the accursed color of hell, and in order to avoid pronouncing the name, the opposite color (white) was substituted. Thus, to this day coal is sometimes known in North Africa as al-abyad (“the white [thing]”).

White generally conveyed a sense of brightness, loyalty, royalty, and death, much the same values as in many other cultures. Two seamless white lengths of cloth made up the garment worn by all male pilgrims to Mecca, and these were often saved for use as a burial shroud. White was also the color associated with the Fatimid caliphs, the opponents of the Abbasids. Blue had prophylactic connotations, and many people wore blue, particularly beads, to ward off the evil eye. The magical power of blue made it the dispenser of evil fortune and at the same time a defense against it. Green, the color of plants, was thought to bring equilibrium, good luck, fertility, and youth. Green was the color of the Prophet Muhammad's flag and the cloak of his son-in-law and successor Ali. In later times green turbans were worn by descendants of the Prophet, and the heavenly throne is said to have been carved from a green jewel. Tiled domes and roofs were most often green or blue, but the auspicious or heavenly associations may have been outweighed by practical considerations, because copper oxide, a ubiquitous coloring agent, produces a green color in a lead glaze and a turquoise or blue color in an alkaline one.

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