The History of Islamic Tilework and Design

Written by Milan Jara

Islam is a far-reaching religion that can be found across several different continents and cultures spanning a large section of human history. As such, the artwork found in the Islamic religion can often be just as varied. Rugs, calligraphy, and even scientific tools created by Islamic artists all bear the hallmarks of the religion. Perhaps the most influential and impactful medium of Islamic art, however, is tile. Islamic tile work is a masterful process that has seamlessly combined faith, aesthetics, and even science to create some of the most spectacular works of art found in any region or religion on the globe.

History of Islamic Art

Islamic art has an expansive history that spans not just numerous centuries, but various regions all over the world. Its impact stretches from Spain to Southeast Asia and covers nearly 1,400 years of human history. Unlike art based in the Christian religion, the vast majority of Islamic art isn't based on depicting the human form. This is because to do so is viewed as a form of idol worship, which is considered a sin. Islamic art presents itself in myriad other styles. Calligraphy, painting, architecture, ceramics, and even textiles are all forms of Islamic art that have evolved and been refined throughout history. Influences from Roman, Byzantine, Chinese, and other cultures can all be found in Islamic artwork.

Themes in Islamic Art

Even though Islamic art has been created across numerous regions and cultures, such as Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Spain, and North Africa, there are observable, recurring themes that present themselves in these works. Most obvious, perhaps, is the theme of religion. Artists have woven Islamic references into everything from mosques to the scientific instruments used to determine prayer times and the direction of Mecca.

Other popular themes found throughout Islamic art include an emphasis on ornamental design, depictions of diversity due to the widespread nature of the religion, and the inter-connectivity of cultures that arose from trade and diplomacy. Many Islamic works of art would also highlight scientific and technical advancements that gave way to new and innovative means of artistic production. Such examples include stonepaste that revolutionized the creation of ceramics and various glazing techniques that could be applied to metalwork.

History of Islamic Tile-Making

One of the most instantly recognizable forms of Islamic art is tiles. Since depictions of human and animal figures are prohibited in the religion, intricate tile designs became a reliable outlet for many Islamic artists. This practice first came about in the ninth century C.E. and remains a mainstay of Islamic artistry to this very day. Upon its inception, Islamic tile work was mostly done through the use of family-owned workshops, and the products would then be sold in local markets. However, as the popularity of Islamic tiles grew, more and more workshops began combining their resources and knowledge in an attempt to further the medium. The cooperation between these family workshops laid the foundations for what would eventually become the golden age of Islamic tile work in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Significance of Tile Work in Islamic Architecture

Mosques couldn't display religious imagery in the same way as Christian churches, and this led to the incorporation of Islamic tile work in architecture as a representation of both beauty and faith. The intricate designs and calligraphy showcased in the creation of Islamic tiles allowed builder to display their devotion to the religion in an aesthetically impressive fashion.

Types of Tile Design

Isalmic tile comes in several different forms. One of the most popular Islamic tile styles is the zellige. Zellige tiles are made using multicolored mosaics that often feature intricate geometric patterns. These tiles are created by first glazing the stone and then cutting out the complex geometric pattern through the use of a sharpened hammer.

Luster painting is another common form of Islamic tile design. These tiles are created by painting on top of an already glazed stone and then firing the stone in order to achieve a glossy and suspended appearance of the artwork. While this process can be done using any variation of colors, luster painted ceiling tiles are mostly created using a monochromatic theme.

Other tile designs include girih, which consist of patterns used to form five different shapes; half rang tiles, which are designed using seven different colors (commonly white, black, ultramarine, turquoise, yellow, fawn, and red); and underglaze tiles, in which the glaze is applied over a painted design.

Modern Evolution of Islamic Tile Work

As technology evolved over time, so, too, did the process of Islamic tile work. Today, modern Islamic artisans create tiles using a wide variety of different techniques. Many artists have even begun relying on computer-assisted systems such as 3D printing in order to create their works.

- Milan Jara

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