Review by Sedef Piker
Islamic art and culture is often perceived as an enigmatic phenomenon to outsiders, and perennially described as a new frontier for Western intellectuals. And Diverse are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture was published by Yale University Press in October 2011. It is a collection of research papers focusing on the role of color in Islamic art and culture, presented by twelve distinguished scholars for the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium, held in Cordoba (Spain) in 2009. Drs. Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, the Hamad bin Khalifa Chairs of Islamic Art in Virginia Commonwealth University are the editors and the authors of the introduction to this impressive undertaking.
To my great delight, this volume took my existing knowledge into new realms, encompassing a wide range of fascinating subjects. From the aesthetics of color in Islamic architecture, gardens and manuscripts, to the role of color in spiritualism and the quest for power and political legitimacy. These explorations also extended to include cross-cultural comparisons present in colonial Latin America.
The introduction by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair is a wonderful overview of the role of color in Islamic art and culture covering a wide spectrum of disciplines. Early on, we are presented with a poignant fact about the development of the vernacular of Islamic art history. Before the 1960s, those studying Islamic art and architecture in the West had to depend upon mostly black and white slides or faded photographs. According to Drs. Blair and Bloom, the convenient accessibility of black and white visual material caused scholars to concentrate and write more about form and design than color. How this has changed is revealed by exploring this book, as readers are taken on a vivid tour spanning fourteen centuries, featuring works from Lahore in present day Pakistan, on through the Arabian desert and across to Quito, Ecuador.
The subject of color is presented as a cultural phenomenon, where different societies recognize colors according to their particular language and culture. These idiosyncrasies range from the number of colors identified in the rainbow to the modern scientific understanding of color in terms of depth, contrast, hue/saturation, and types of color mixing.
The book gets its name from references in the Koran to the existence of diverse hues which is accepted as an attribute of God's creation:
Have you not seen how God sends down water from heaven, and therewith we bring forth fruits of diverse hues? And in the mountains are streaks white and red, of diverse hues, and pitchy black; men too and beasts and cattle - diverse are their hues.
To understand how the Arabs of Muhammad's time perceived the colors of the world around them, they list the colors mentioned in the Koran - white, black, red, green and yellow - which were also the basic colors of pre-Islamic Arabic language. Along with the expansion of Islam and the Arabic culture, other elements such as local and regional traditions, and scientific knowledge gained from other civilizations were incorporated into Islamic culture, affecting the meanings associated with colors.
Bahram Gur in the Red Pavilion, from a manuscript of Nizami's Khamsa, copied by Muhammad ibn Qavam al-Shirazi, known as Hammami, dated 29 Jumada II, (September 1543); Shiraz. Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, D-212, fol.212a
Drs. Blair and Bloom state that on the subject of color early and medieval Arab scientists, theologians and philosophers, were primarily concerned with the manipulation of theories inherited from the Greeks. In literature, the most famous metaphor of colors is Haft Paykar (Seven Portraits/Beauties) by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (d. 1209) where he uses seven colors to structure his classic poem. Central theme of the book is the tale of the Sassanian prince Bahram Gur who has seven pavilions built of seven colors for his seven brides and visits them on each of the seven days of the week wearing the appropriate color. Drs. Blair and Bloom explain:
On a prosaic level, Nizami's poem is a bedazzling exploration of the pleasures of love, but it can also be interpreted metaphorically as exploring the seven stages of human life, the seven aspects of destiny, or the seven stages of the mystical path.
In Islamic mysticism the phenomenon of colors and its concurrence with the mystic interior vision is mentioned with a detailed guide to the significance of the fabric color of the Sufi robe as an outward sign of the individual's degree of spiritual advancement:
The basic Sufi robe is either black or dark blue to signify that the wearer has conquered and slain his carnal soul (nafs). By wearing black, he symbolically mourns its loss. The Sufi who has attained the stage of repentance (tawba) wears a white robe to symbolize the washing away of his worldly concerns. When he has risen above the lower world to continue his mystical journey in the supralunar realm, he dons a blue robe to symbolize the color of the sky. Finally, if he has completed all stages of the mystical path and has experienced the lights of all mystical states, he wears a multicolored or variegated robe (khirqa-yi mulamma'a)
- this is the guide provided by Najm al-Din Kubra (d. 1220) but his disciple's differing conception is also mentioned to state the conclusion that colors could mean whatever people wanted them to mean.
Album page showing a Sufi wearing a blue robe; 15th century. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, H 2153, fol. 92.b
They also touch upon the European notions of color and the effect these had on the Islamic theosophist al-Kirmani (d. 1870) who took up Goethe's theory of "physiological colors." Drs. Blair and Bloom state that artists and artisans must have had an entirely different experience of color through hands-on experience, not wholly validated in the theoretical notions of contemporary writers.
From here, they explore the philosophy of color with its practical applications by artists as opposed to the theoretical approach of the philosophers, scientists, and mystics. Color in the arts of the Islamic lands is pursued further in the craft of making books involving the preparation of colored inks, dyeing leather and paper, calligraphic arts, conservators analyzing the pigments used in the multicolored manuscripts, and the trade and production of textiles and carpets.
The coloring of fabrics was a very costly and an intriguing process. According to Drs. Blair and Bloom "for Muslims, the magical transformation wrought by the dyeing process of fabrics had religious overtones: observers knew that dyes were veils or vessels (which color the water according to their own hue) and that to change color meant also to change one's character."
Illustration of the Procession at the end of Ramadan showing the Abbasids' black banners from a copy of al-Hariri's Maqamat; Baghdad, 643/1237. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, MS arabe 5847, fol.19a
There were also certain colors that played an important role in Islam because of their association with the Prophet Muhammad, the Kaaba in Mecca or hajj (the pilgrimage). Different dynasties associated with different colors to establish their identities. One example they cite is:
The Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads began with black-clad warriors unfurling black banners, since the coming of the messiah was to be heralded by a man carrying a black banner... The first Syrian rebellion against the Abbasids featured white banners, and white became initially associated with the Sufyani opposition...
Even the color of the kiswa, cloth covering the Kaaba, changed with the caliph to bear that particular dynasty’s colors.
Blue-tiled dome of the Shah Mosque (Masjid-i Khomeini), Isfahan, Iran. 1611-30
They note that materials used in the artifacts made in Islamic lands were also prized because of their inherent color. Color played a crucial role in the surface design of metal-works, enameling on metals and glass and especially the glazes used by potters. In architecture, colorful decorations in the form of tiles, glass mosaics or painted walls and ceilings were mostly to be found inside buildings. Regional differences were also noted. In India builders and patrons had used the natural red sandstone for their buildings. In Iran where the buff-colored brick did-not afford the same kind of opportunity, they were forced to incorporate colors in other ways like the colorful tile decorations. Finally, the passion for color was extended from the buildings to the lavishly colorful gardens in Islamic lands.
The church of San Francisco, Acatepe, Mexico, 18th century
Drs. Blair and Bloom conclude by adding that the colorful influence of Islamic art and culture was transported from Spain across the ocean to the New World in the form of colored tiles, decorated wooden ceilings and the ornamentation of doorways and windows. They also state that the preconceived notions of the Castilian encounter with Islam were carried over to the Spanish conquerors' perception of the New World.
Each of the twelve papers delve into the significance of color approached from a variety of angles within the Islamic world. The relevance of the topics covered surpasses just a concentration in the Islamic world extending well into the art and culture of the West as well. The vibrant photographs included within the book complement the text beautifully; some of the photographs are especially precious since they are of places or object not frequently published . Overall this book is a valuable addition to any art or history scholar’s library.
I would like to thank Yale University Press, Inbooks Australia and 3PP for the review copy.The Object in Islamic Art and Culture - Website for the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art link
Yale University Press page for this book, including preview images link
Yale University Press page for this book, including preview images link
Sedef Piker is a graduate of F.I.T at New York State University. She has studied the complex forms of Tehzip (Ottoman Illuminated Calligraphy) at the Ministry of Culture’s Traditional Turkish Decorative Arts program in Topkapi Palace, participating in several group exhibitions including one at the National Library in Ankara and one at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul. She describes each experience in her life studying design and learning artistic technique being accompanied by a ''gnawing hunger for more knowledge'' of art and history, which she delights in exploring at Sedef's Corner and its accompanying twitter feed.