Last Updated 11 Mar 2020

Renaissance vs. Islamic Art

Category Islam
Essay type Research
Words 2101 (8 pages)
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Mirriam Webster defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”. It is a broad definition, because nothing about art is specific. Art has many different meanings, takes many different forms, and achieves many different things. Culture, including religion, greatly influences art. The artistic works of a culture may reflect a lifestyle, language, religion, or belief of said culture. Some would consider the heart of art in our modern world to be Europe, specifically, Italy.

This is logical, seeing as how Italy is famous for a time period called the Renaissance which was a vital turning point in the history of art in the world. The Renaissance period of time immediately followed the middle ages. During the middle ages, people had no concept of individuality, and there was no focus on mankind. Instead, the focus narrowly on God, celestial beings, and the afterlife. All things that happened were considered a mystery that only God could understand or be involved in. Because of the reliance on religion, people did not venture into thinking about science or how things really worked.

The Renaissance was named as its own time period in order to signify the end of medieval thinking of the middle ages. Important aspects of the Renaissance include secularism and humanism, which were concentrations on human capability and a furthering from the all-encompassing spiritual norms. Art during the Renaissance sought to apply humanistic methods to Christianity. As people began to concentrate less on the ideal and more on what was realistic, they began to paint in a realistic fashion which included portraits, and human figures which were proportionate.

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What’s more is not only that they were painted realistically, but that average humans would be depicted in art in the first place. Although the Renaissance was secular, and concentrated on humans rather than deities, there are many Italian paintings with religious subjects. Italy didn’t live in a little bubble of scientific, humanistic advancement. While the Renaissance took place, Italian culture was somewhat challenged by Islamic culture when the Ottoman Turks made an attempt to conquer Europe.

Ottoman rulers such as Mehmet and Suleiman are, in my opinion, responsible for the spread of Islamic art and culture from Persia to Algeria. As the Ottoman empire grew, its art and culture flourished under the rule of a select few rulers. Although the art grew and flourished, it still had its roots in Islamic faith, meaning it still followed the “rules” of the Muslim religion. The Ottoman empire’s occupation of South-east Europe and domination of the Mediterranean were tools which unintentionally spread Islamic culture to Europe, Italy included.

When a group attempts to colonize an area, they (though sometimes inadvertently) spread their culture to said area. This is usually done through propaganda and artwork. The similarities between Islamic art and art in Renaissance Italy results from the fact that many elements of Islamic art spread to Italy during the spread of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. We can see many purely Islamic elements in European art in the Renaissance time period. To begin with, the Muslims are responsible for bringing glass, ceramics, and pottery to Italy.

The development of glass and ceramics began in the Middle East. Using these mediums, they developed techniques such as gazing, gliding, qualities of color, and sparkle in order to add an artistic dimension to every day necessities. When the Muslims invaded Europe and held an Italian city, Italians learned to make ceramics, and then followed the Islamic way of adding sparkle to their glass and gold to their ceramic pieces. The Italians were influenced by, not only the artistic medium itself, but also the decorations on Islamic art.

A cardinal characteristic of Islamic art is an inclination towards covering surfaces with patterns composed of vegetal and/or geometric elements. They valued sophisticated patterns and variety such as those found in Islamic artwork. They were fascinated by the intricate patterns, so much so that they began to imitate the designs on their own glass and ceramic artwork. They copied a certain design pattern, which was a sort of scrolling foliage, which they gave the term arabesque. Both Islamic and Renaissance art are greatly influenced by general religion, and even exhibit some of the same elements.

Geometric figures in Islamic art are used to make said art perfectly symmetrical in any way possible. Even the arabesque scrolling foliage is more symmetrical and perfect than actual foliage. The geometric shapes in their works, are used to create a sense of superb balance and order, which is representative of Muslim ideals. Similarly, the artwork of the Italian Renaissance used realism to create balance, order, and proportion, which were fundamental ideals of the Renaissance. Aside from the designs and depictions in the artwork, what makes them similar is the way in which the artwork came to exist.

The term “patron of the arts” was widely used during the Renaissance, and described those individuals who possessed the funds needed to aid the artists in creating their art. During the Renaissance, the patrons of the arts were able to use their wealth to achieve power and respect, by creating a work of art that proclaimed their devotion to themselves, their city, and their god. The most famous of the patrons during the Renaissance were the Medici family. During the height of the Renaissance, the Medici in power was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.

He held power in Florence by his involvement in gaining commissions for artists such as Sandro Boticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, who were both famous artists of their time. The Muslim empires had a very similar system. Certain Ottoman rulers are known for their positive contributions to the art and culture of their empire. Their contributions were not making the actual art, but providing the resources for the “professional” artists to do so. Suleiman the Magnificent is known to be one of the best and most influential rulers of the Ottoman empire.

One reason he earned this title is that art and literature flourished under his rule. His artistic nature (reflected in everything he did), paired with his access to wealth made him an important patron of the arts, helping artists express original Ottoman ideas in a Turkish format. The interest of the patrons determine what kind of artwork gets created and released to the public. Because of this, the artwork of a time period may reflect the thoughts and ideals of the upper class because they were wealthy enough to commission certain works to be done.

The patrons were the people responsible for the prospering and growth of art in both time periods, though they existed in slightly different forms. Although the Renaissance art was influenced by Islamic art, and both were influenced by religion and earlier time periods, there are fundamental differences between the two. These differences lie in the way each culture chooses to portray their religion in their art. The axiomatic dissimilarity between the two types of art, as far as paintings and tapestries are concerned, is that there are no physical beings depicted in Islamic art, and the opposite is true for the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The reason for this goes back to the individual foundation and central ideas of each perspective religion and, for the Renaissance, the practices influenced by the time period. Renaissance thinking was secular, but Renaissance art was not about excluding religion altogether, it was more about including humanism in the depiction of religious figures and events. One can see the religious elements in works such as The Birth of Venus, painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1486. The nudity of Venus in this work is a suggestion of Eve before “the Fall” as well as the pure love of Paradise.

Once arrived on the planet or “born”, the love goddess dons earthly, mortal sin, which leads her to become the New Eve, otherwise known as Madonna. The Madonna’s purity is represented by the nude Venus, and she has become a personification of the Christian church. What makes such a work specific to the humanistic aspect of the Renaissance is the ideals captured in it. Venus as the center of the painting represents a celestial being, but is painted very realistically in form, being accurately proportioned. This alone captures the characteristics of humanism, with its focus on realism, and roots in Greek and Roman myths and culture.

Muslims do not agree with the way that Christians portray religion through their artwork for their own reasons, so they choose not to do the same in their own artistic practices. Muslims saw an intrinsic flaw in the Christian way and they did not want the message of their God to be confused with the worshipping of the medium, or for anything to be mistaken for idols or idolatry. Therefore they did, and still to this day, do not allow any physical beings in their art, because such art might allow for attention to and worshipping of Mohammed rather than attention to the word of their God.

By these interpretations, the Qu’ran is Midieval in the nature of its message in that physical beings have no right to be depicted in artwork because the word of God is all-important. Because of this Muslim view, Islamic art does not possess the same elements as the Christian art from the Renaissance. There are no people at all depicted in Islamic art, but that’s not to say that it still is not religious. A calligraphic panel by one Mustafa Rakim is a perfect example. The background is red, with beautiful gold characters which are arranged so that the outline appears to be that of a man with a turban who is praying.

It reads “God, there is no god but He, the Lord of His prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Lord of all that has been crated. The aforementioned is exemplary of how Islamic works of art could be religious, but approached in a different fashion than in the Renaissance. There could not be a physical depiction of their god, Muhammad, or a man praying, so instead calligraphy was used in a shape in order to further convey a message. In fact, calligraphy is the highest form of visual art, and the nly spiritually meaningful form of art because of its association with the Qu’ran, which Muslims worship every word of. Christians worshipped Jesus Christ, who was a human being, and simply a messenger of God. For example, atop Carcovado Mountain in Brazil, there is a statue entitled “Christ the Redeemer”, which offers a panoramic view of Rio De Janeiro. The statue is not only a major tourist attraction, but more of a source of religious solace for all who come to visit it. There are also many Christians who choose to worship at the feet of the aforementioned statue, and others like it.

The Muslims think of the Christians as wrong for doing such things as worshipping at a statue of Jesus Christ because in their religion, the prophet Mohammed shan’t be worshipped because of his position as the messenger of their God. The Islamic focus is on the teachings of their God alone, and not on the medium through which they received said teachings. Art with physical depictions of religious figures would also go against the teachings of the Qu’ran, which by some interpretations suggests that Muslims should be against idolatry, meaning they should not believe in the worshipping of a physical object or person as a god.

Physical depictions in religious art have also been known to change along with the time period, which could in turn change the mindsets of the followers of the religion. For example, in Christianity, depictions of Jesus Christ contributed to the influence of the church and rulers who associated themselves with and promoted Christianity. During the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, the image of Jesus changed from a humble shepherd to a richly robed and commanding persona—a fitting companion for the emperors whose images were also portrayed in mosaics on the walls of churches.

Because the Muslims view the word of their god as all-important, they do not want interpretations of the religion to be further influenced by the time period, as what has happened with the image of Jesus. Art, in any form, has the ability to represent everything about a culture. In my opinion, it has the most impact on how we perceive certain people, religions, and cultures. He who is in control of the art is, in essence, in control of the opinions of future generations. Essentially, comparing the art of two separate cultures is comparing everything from their language and religion to trends and important societal topics.

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