The Beauty Within

Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque in Isfahan - Iran [Image source:]
Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque in Isfahan – Iran [Image source:]
On Jan 29 2014 The Princes School played host to guest lecturer Jason Elliot- Author of ‘Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran’

Lecture Title: ‘An Introduction to Symbolism in Islamic Art and Architecture’.
The question that his lecture addressed was “Do the motifs and geometry, symbols and imagery of Islamic art actually mean anything?

Elliot described the art of Islam to have “an exuberance, a music behind it – easily identifiable, it is resistant to time, distance and scale”.
Islamic art has the ability to traverse cultures, times and geographic locations. Whether looking to the tiles of the Alhambra or the buildings of Samarkand it is easy to know they hold the “same artistic principles”.

Its fundamental principles of geometry allow itself to be repeated infinitely smaller and infinitely larger “from the dome of a Mosque to the smallest examples of calligraphy” and yet in Islamic art, neither is appreciated as “more Islamic” than the other nor is there a distinction between high, Fine Art and the decorative arts, each are appreciated as having the same goal: to exemplify the beauty of God.

Symbolically, Islamic art in some examples was “purposefully aniconic”, but in areas such as Persia there is a strong history of figurative depictions. Rugs and miniature paintings depicted animals and living creatures- “representations of things from the world”- these too were in the remembrance of God, just as the patterns and geometries developed elsewhere served to celebrate the beauty of God.

Artists and craftsmen employed geometry to reflect the “rhythms of the cosmos or world…[with] harmony and rationality” and “elevated the sanctity of the written word” through the development and reverence for calligraphy.

Elliot spoke of the genuineness of the artists producing the works of Islamic art and their relationship to God. Islamic art represents three elements “order, serenity and beauty.” These artists would not have been able to “produce beauty by being half-hearted about things” implying that those that were making these works of art had an understanding of the spiritual aspect of what they were making. Art, just as anything else served as part of one wholeness of existence – the single overriding notion of the Qur’an that there is a Oneness to creation, a singularity of reality and that “behind every phenomenon there is One Source”.

Central features of Islamic art are;

Arabesque (or biomorphic art)- this references itself to nature and exemplifies “Divine abundance…it is full of precision and harmony with nature as the source of Divine magnificence.”

Geometry- “chosen for its symbolic power” geometry represents the underlying structure of existence. It is the building blocks of reality and is the symbol of Unity in the Divine. Sacred ratios have been employed in many cultures “to avoid giving form to God (anthropomorphism)”. “Geometric patterns are suggestive of infinity” and the Absolute. They are both one and many at the same time.

Calligraphy- employed to beautify the nature of the written word from the Qur’an- the word of God. Within the Arabic language “letters have Divine characteristics” – it is difficult for the non-native speaker of the language to understand and appreciate this reading of the art of calligraphy.

So what is a symbol? Elliot in his lecture described the symbol as an “experiential thing… [something] uncovered by the work of the onlooker” who then finds something of the artists original intention-and something more, meaningful to their own selves.

From attending Elliot’s lecture it was inspiring to learn of the exceptional consideration that went into every aspect of creating Islamic art and architecture. An example shown was the dome of Sheikh Lotfullah Mosque in Isfahan – Iran (see featured image). The inside of the dome is comprised of a “net” of lozenges emanating from a singular central point.This is the Divine coming down towards earth. The band of windows represents the angelic light and the shaped arches below represent the material world. The “net” is symbolic of the veil of existence- reality that is hidden from view, a “screen that both reveals and conceals”.

What Islamic art does show in its many manifestations is that the Divine has been deeply entwined with the experience of the everyday, and that any part of life is in remembrance of God. This is shown in the creation of dinnerware inscribed with texts remembering God as well as the grand celebrations of the Divine in architecture. Mosque lamps are adorned with the Surat An-Nur, weapons designed with the principles of Divine geometry, gardens filled with patterns and fountains- representations of the gardens of Paradise.

What is apparent from seeing these symbols is that we have forgotten how to read imagery like this, whether from Islamic art or any other religion or culture. We find it difficult in our modern understanding to relate to the Divine, and to relate to the stories that these images tell.

The explicit beauty of the Islamic arts allows the viewer to experience the spirit of the religion. It acts as a catalyst bringing the onlooker closer to the Divine; to understand the Unity, balance and harmony inherent within all.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the lecture was simple. Symbolism in Islamic art has a fundamental purpose: to serve as a reminder to man of his relationship with God and the universe.

Originally posted Jan 30th 2014 on


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