Islamic Art has tremendously influenced the western world by fostering the creation of a distinctive culture filled with poetry, art, and architecture. Amongst these is the masterpiece, the Iranian Mihrab with which its elaborate tile work has deemed it one of the most famous attractions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Due to its immense size, the museum displays this piece with justice because once one enters the exhibit for Islamic Art, the first thing one will notice is a gigantic, ornate tilework placed against the wall. Surrounding the qibla wall are artifacts of religious sermons with ornate Arabic calligraphy. In addition, a three-foot-tall Quran is placed right next to the Mihrab.
The Mihrab is a prayer niche which is a wall on the mosque that helps direct the Kaaba in Mecca which is where Muslims face when praying. The Mihrab is originally from a theological school in Isfahan, Iran, called Madrasa Imami, and was built right after the Ilkhanid Dynasty. The Mihrab was used for the public as theologians gathered around here to pray.
Upon seeing the work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I was surprised by how large the work really is. The colors of the prayer niche were more vibrant and beautiful than what it appears in pictures. As you look closer, you would notice that the composition doesn’t have any blank spaces and that every tile is filled with intricate geometric details as well as the inclusion of sacred scripts from the Quran. I was surprised by how large the size of the mihrab was because normally when I visit a mosque the prayer niches there aren’t as big or ornate as the one shown in the museum.
The Mihrab which was found in the Madrasa Imami was built during the Islamic 14th century, when Injuids and Muzaffarid leaders were competing against each other in inquiring Isfahan, Iran. Currently, the wall lost most of its vibrant colors and became whitewashed. The Mihrab was removed from the Madrasa Imami during the 1920’s and was restored by skillful local potters. The Mihrab is one of the earliest mosaic tilework consisting of cut and glazed tiles combined to create Arabesque patterns and calligraphic inscriptions. The artwork, itself, contains of a pointed arch outlined with a white and blue Kufic script. In order to create depth, decorative geometric patterns fill the inside of the Mihrab. Each pattern is symmetrically aligned with the other and includes different shades of blue, white, yellow, and dark green colors. Around the exterior, there is a hadith by the Prophet Muhamad from the Quran 9:18-22 that reads, “The Prophet (may blessings and peace be upon him) said: The mosque is the abode of every believer.” Unlike art from other faiths, Islamic Art doesn’t consist of painting of humans or animals because Muslims believe that only God has the power to create living creatures. Due to this belief, artists developed a special kind of decoration called Arabesque which includes the twisting patterns of vines, leaves, and flowers.
Islamic Art consists of geometric designs which shows how Muslims were highly advanced in math and science for its time. Furthermore, there is a spiritual meaning behind it because the infinite and complex geometric designs create the impression of unending repetition and gives the idea about the infinite nature of Allah. In addition, Islamic Art is known for their exuberant use of vibrant colors. During this time, Islamic artist usually used a combination of blue and white colors which were invented by potters through a technique of painting in cobalt under a transparent glaze. The Arabic inscriptions in the mosaic contain two different styles of Arabic calligraphy: Kufic and Muhaqqaq. Kufic was an angular, slow-moving type of writing, while Muhaqqaq was a more cursive style of writing. Both styles of writing were used to write sacred passages from the Quran. The Mihrab consists of writing that about the five pillars of Islam which are the fundamental rules that a Muslim must follow which is to believe in Allah, pray five times a day, give back to charity, fast during Ramadan, and to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Mihrab is a famous artwork for Muslims because it shows the distinct type of art created by Muslims and reveals the way Muslims view the spiritual realm and the universe.
Moreover, there is no specific artist associated with this work. Those who constructed this art work were skillful potters and made the Mihrab as a public project. The Mihrab showed that lavish ornamentation was encouraged in Isfahan rather than shunned, even in religious settings. The Ilkhanids were great builders and Isfahan had many architectures designed with distinct blue tiles, giving the city the name “blue city.” Many of the numerous arts and architecture were commissioned by shahs so that they could attract foreign traders and create a marketplace that would boost their economy. One prominent shah was Shah Abbas, whose reign encouraged famous artists such as Aqa Riza, Sadiqi Beg, Riza-yi ‘Abbasi, and Mir ‘Imad. Isfahan art was heavily influenced by the Ilkhanid dynasty, as Mongols brought in the Chinese depiction of pictorial space, as well as motifs such as lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes. The mixture of East-Asian elements to its Perso-Islamic culture created a new form of art that have influenced different regions including Anatolia and India.
The prayer niche is similar to other famous architectures including the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem. The Dome of Rock also includes features of calligraphic scriptures of verses from the Quran. The calligraphy reflects the belief in the beauty of the written word of God, Allah in Islam, and the intertwined floral motifs demonstrates the belief that geometric patterns and calligraphy are the proper decorations for the Islamic world. The use of tiles with different shades of blues is similar in both architectures due to the spiritual belief that blue is the color associated with heaven. In summation, The Iranian Mihrab was a prominent piece of Islamic Art and the use of geometric patterns, intricate Arabic calligraphy, and vibrant colors have influenced the rest of the western world.