Early in the 11th century there began a Sunni revival, which had both religious and cultural aspects. This movement, which saw itself as a restoration of traditionalism, was accompanied by an artistic revival that established many of the enduring forms of Islamic art and architecture – in particular, its canon of decorative art. The three elements of the Islamic decorative canon began to appear as early as the Umayyad period, but they crystallised into their classic forms during the ‘Sunni Revival’.
Calligraphy gives a visible form to the revealed word of the Qur’an and is therefore considered the most noble of the arts. It manages to combine a geometric discipline with a dynamic rhythm. Interestingly, none of its many styles, created in different places at different periods, has ever completely fallen into disuse. In the Islamic world it takes the place of iconography, being widely used in the decorative schemes of buildings.
Geometric patterns have always had a particular appeal to Muslim designers and craftsmen. They convey a certain aura of spirituality, or at least otherworldliness, without relating to any specific doctrine. In an Islamic context they are also quite free of any symbolic meaning. Above all they provide craftsmen with the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and subtlety of workmanship, and often to dazzle and intrigue with its sheer complexity.
Vegetal ‘Arabesque’ compositions are as ubiquitous in Islamic decoration as geometric patterns. It is difficult, without other indications, to determine where or when a particular composition of this genre might have originated. Like geometrical designs, these too are found across the entire range of mediums from book illustration to plasterwork; in ceramics, woodwork, metalwork and ivory-carving, even in carpets and textiles.