Geometric Squiggles

Qur'an, 14th-15th Century, Egypt. Image from Chester Beatty Library.
Qur’an, 14th-15th Century, Egypt. Image from Chester Beatty Library.

The text pages of Islamic manuscripts vary in format and went through changes over time. Early Islamic manuscripts show the use of a horizontal format, which scholars think mirrors that of a scroll. Early manuscripts often used a one column block format as seen in the image at the left, however by the fourteenth century text was laid out in two columns and there are some manuscripts with four or even six columns. Often the text was surrounded by a frame with illustrations located around, outside or within the frame.

Decoration in religious texts is primarily iconic or decorative with no human or animal representation. Instead you will find geometric or what is sometimes called arabesque decorations. These same kinds of flourishes with squiggling lines and repeated patterns can also be seen in Western manuscript decoration.

Image from Yale - SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery
Image from Yale – SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

Many Islamic manuscripts, especially Qur’ans were decorated with a frontispiece and frontispiece carpet pages. These are illustrations that face the title page of the book, making for a very dramatic opening. These pages were highly decorated with geometric patterns, colors and gilding. More decoration can be found within Islamic texts at the beginning of a new chapter or sura. Decoration can also emphasize specific verses within the text.

Secular manuscripts also contained illustrations and decorative elements, but had one major difference. They include human and animal images. Secular texts include tax records, business transactions as well as scientific, math, astronomy and geography texts to name a few. Many works by famous philosophers including Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic for study. These texts often include illustrations describing the text as well as portraits of authors or students teaching and learning.

To learn more about decoration visit the post about manuscript inks or this on on the tools they used.

Images to make you swoon:

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