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date: 05 April 2020

Christian art in the Islamic worldfree

  • Sheila S. Blair
  •  and Jonathan M. Bloom

Large areas of the world that came under Muslim sway beginning in the 7th century—notably the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Central Asia—had sizeable Christian communities, and it took several centuries for Muslims to become the majority population in these regions. Christian minority communities continue to survive—and even flourish—in such regions as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Christians—as well as Jews, Zoroastrians and others—shared the visual vocabularies of their Muslim neighbors, if not their faith, and it is often difficult if not impossible to distinguish a work of “Islamic art” made for a Muslim from one made for a non-Muslim. Indeed, many of the craftsmen making “Islamic art” may have been Christians or Jews, for Islamic art has been defined as the art made by artists or artisans whose religion was Islam, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population or a Muslim setting. In some times and places, Muslims and Christians violently contested the same spaces, whether during the “Reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula or the Crusades in the Levant. Despite the bellicosity, in both cases artistic interchange created such distinctive traditions as Mozarabic art (art made in the Iberian peninsula by Christians living under Muslim rule) and Crusader art (Levantine art made from the 12th to 14th centuries when some areas of the region were under Crusader rule). Examples survive in virtually all media, including architecture, carved woodwork, manuscripts, metalwork, ceramics, and textiles, to name just a few. This article only highlights a few representative examples of Christian art in Muslim contexts.

Perhaps the earliest examples are several unglazed oil lamps found at various Umayyad sites in the eastern Mediterranean. They have molded inscriptions bearing the artist’s (or patron’s) name, which may be either Muslim or Christian. About a century later, under the Abbasids in northern Syria and Mesopotamia, the Bevelled style of decoration, with its rhythmic and symmetrical repetitions of curved carved lines that form abstract vegetal patterns in which the traditional distinction between subject and ground has been dissolved, became typical of the Islamic art, although it was used equally by Muslims and Christians alike. A carved alabaster capital in Copenhagen (Davids Saml.) can be attributed on stylistic grounds to the city of Raqqa, which had been the seat of a bishopric and became the favored residence of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid from 796 to 808. The capital, of a type similar to those excavated at the site in the early 20th century, is decorated with a cross carved on one side in the central palmette, showing that the capital must have come from a Christian building. The typically “Islamic” Beveled style therefore did not carry specifically confessional associations. Similarly, the interior of the late 9th or early 10th-century Deir al-Suryani monastery in the Wadi Natrun in Egypt is decorated with an elaborate cycle of deeply carved stuccoes in the Beveled style, presumably done by émigré monks from Iraq or northern Syria.

Several examples of Egyptian ceramics overglaze decorated in luster, another typically “Islamic” technique from the late 10th century, bear distinctively Christian images, including a well-known deep bowl (London, V&A) bearing the image of a monk and a shard (Cairo, Mus. Islam. A.) bearing a striking representation of Christ Pantocrator. These must have been made in Fatimid times for the indigenous Coptic community, as were the numerous sets of carved wooden doors and screens decorating Coptic churches in a style very similar, if not identical to that used for contemporary mosques and palaces.

About 18 brass vessels made in 13th-century Syria were decorated with the typically “Islamic” inlay technique, unusually depicting Christian scenes. Of this diverse group, some pieces, of rather poor quality, were made for local Christians in Syria or Iraq, while others have Arabic texts dedicating them to specific Muslim patrons, such as the Ayyubid sultan of Syria and Egypt, al-Malik al-Salih (r. 1239–49). Still others were probably made for Crusader nobility, who developed a nouveau-riche taste for exotic objects with delicate chasing and glittering silver inlay of Arabic inscriptions, Christian scenes and secular pleasures. The most famous is probably a large, brass canteen in Washington (Freer; diam. 370 mm), inlaid in silver, gold and a black bituminous substance. It bears Arabic inscriptions around the center and along the shoulder; the edge is decorated with 30 medallions presenting typical Islamic scenes of musicians, drinkers and a hawk attacking a bird; and an animated inscription band has transformed the Arabic letters so completely into revelers that the specific text is illegible. The face is decorated with large figural scenes: the central medallion shows the enthroned Virgin and Christ child surrounded by three scenes from the life of Christ: the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Entry into Jerusalem, separated by typical medallions of birds against an arabesque scroll. The back is decorated with an arcade of 25 pointed arches, each enclosing a haloed figure, including an angel, a warrior saint and a person at prayer. Somewhat comparable is a large enameled glass bottle from 13th-century Syria (Vaduz, Furusiyya A. Found.) decorated with seven religious figures on the neck and a detailed church and agricultural scenes on the body. Crusader princes presumably took such souvenirs of the Holy Land back to Europe, where they became reliquaries or treasures in princely collections, although the glass bottle is said to have been found in China.

Whereas the inclusion of illustrations clearly distinguished copies of the Christian scriptures from copies of the Koran, which were never illustrated, both manuscript traditions often shared scripts as well as styles of non-figural illumination. Some of the earliest dated examples of the new “broken cursive” style of Arabic writing introduced in the late 9th century can be found in dated Arabic–Christian manuscripts from Mt. Sinai, while many illuminated Christian manuscripts produced in the Near East in the Mamluk period bear geometric and arabesque illumination virtually indistinguishable from that used for contemporary Islamic manuscripts.

By the late 16th century, the Orthodox patriarch in the Ottoman Empire must have had access to the silk brocade looms of Istanbul, which normally produced textiles for the court, for several elaborate fabrics (Moscow, Kremlin Armory) intended to be made into church vestments have survived. They depict the seated figure of Christ surrounded by the four evangelists and Greek inscriptions, along with the typical Ottoman ornament of rosebuds, tulips and carnations. Similarly in 17th-century Iran, a silk textile decorated with a typically Safavid pattern of sprays of flowers was made into a chasuble (Copenhagen, Davids Saml., 7/1975), presumably for one of the many Christian churches that existed in Safavid Iran.

Perhaps the most important of these churches is All Saviors (or Vank) Cathedral in New Julfa, a district across the Ziyanda river from the city of Isfahan (see Isfahan §3, (ix)) in central Iran. Around 1603 the Safavid shah ‛Abbas I had ordered the resettlement of some ten thousand Armenian families from the Caucasus into this quarter to ensure that their skills in silk trading remained in Safavid hands, and a royal decree of 1614 states that the shah, in order to show favor to his Armenian and Christian subjects, ordered a “lofty church” built on a plot of land granted by the shah himself. The shah appointed two courtiers to supervise the plans and the project, and one of them was also the contractor for the royal mosque being built by the shah at the same time. Although the spatial organization of the cathedral could not be more different from that of the mosque, the kite-shaped shields supporting the domes on both buildings are structurally identical. Many ornamental details would not have been out of place in a Muslim context, but the interior decoration of the cathedral was decidedly Christian: vegetal and geometric tilework was supplanted by representational murals donated by a prosperous Armenian merchant with images derived from European engravings. The painters may have been either Armenians living in Isfahan or Europeans attached to the various East India companies resident in this quarter.


  • A. S. Atiya: The Arabic Manuscripts of Mount Sinai (Baltimore, 1955)
  • E. Pauty: Les bois sculptés des églises coptes (époque fatimide) (Cairo, 1930)
  • E. Baer: Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images [Supplements to Muqarnas] (Leiden, 1989)
  • E. Grubeand others: Cobalt and Lustre: The First Centuries of Islamic Pottery (1994), 9 of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (Oxford, 1992), no. 19 [oil lamps]
  • Trésors fatimides du Caire (exh. cat., Paris, Inst. Monde Arabe, 1998)
  • L. -A. Hunt: Byzantium, Eastern Christendom and Islam: Art at the Crossroads of the Medieval Mediterranean, 2 vols. (London, 1998–2000) [reprints of many articles dealing with architecture, woodwork, manuscripts, etc.]
  • I. B. McCabe: The Shah’s Silk for Europe’s Silver: The Eurasian Trade of the Julfa Armenians in Safavid Iran and India, 1530–1750 (Atlanta, 1999)
  • N. Atasoy and others: Ipek: The Crescent and the Rose: Imperial Ottoman Silks and Velvets (London, 2001)
  • Glass of the Sultans (exh. cat. by S. Carboni and D. Whitehouse; New York, Met.; Corning, NY, Mus. Glass; Athens, Benaki Mus.; 2001–2), no. 121
  • E. Hoffman: “Pathways of Portability: Islamic and Christian Interchange from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century,” Art History, 24/1 (2001), pp. 17–50
  • M. Immerzeel: “The Stuccoes of Deir al-Surian: A Waqf of the Takritans in Fustat?,” Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium: Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies (Leiden, August 27–September 2, 2000), pp. 1303–20
  • L. -A. Hunt: “Stuccowork at the Monastery of the Syrians in the Wādı- Naṭrūn: Iraqi–Egyptian Artistic Contact in the ‛Abbasid Period,” Christians at the Heart of Islamic Rule: Church Life and Scholarship in ‛Abbasid Iraq, ed. D. Thomas, The History of Christian–Muslim Relations, 1 (Leiden, 2003), pp. 93–127
  • Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen (exh. cat. by S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom; Chestnut Hill, MA, Boston Coll., McMullen Mus, and Chicago, U. Chicago, IL, Smart Mus. A.; 2006–7), no. 81 [capital]