Introduction & Keynote Address


Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

Color in Islamic Art

Everyone remarks on the colorful nature of Islamic art. From the fabled azure domes of Samarkand to the luminous miniature paintings of Behzad, color is a distinctive feature of virtually all the arts created in the Islamic lands over the past fourteen centuries. Famous buildings from the Jami‘ al-Abyad (“White Mosque”) in Ramla and the Yesil Cami (“Green Mosque”) in Bursa to the Masjid-i Kabud (“Blue Mosque”) in Tabriz and the Lal Qila (“Red Fort”) in Agra are named for their distinctive color, and even such innately monochrome media as metalwork were transformed by colorful inlays. Nevertheless, few if any scholars have further investigated the roles of color in Islamic art and culture.

Arabic reserves a special verbal form for colors, and the Qur’an sees color as an attribute of God’s creation. As Arabic culture developed and spread along with Islam, it incorporated and elaborated the scientific knowledge of previous civilizations, such as Aristotle’s investigation of the rainbow. The rich chromatic vocabulary of Arabic, Persian and other languages in the region eventually spread to European languages, and many of our color words—azure, carmine, crimson, khaki, lilac, orange, saffron, scarlet, and turquoise—derive from the languages of the Islamic lands. The Qur’an had already used color metaphorically, as in the purity associated with white, and later philosophers and mystics expanded this symbolism. The great 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi, for example, used the traditional seven colors to structure his classic poem Haft paykar (“Seven portraits”), in which Bahram Gur, the personification of the ideal ruler, visits seven princesses in seven pavilions of seven colors, where they recount seven stories about the seven stages of human life, destiny or the mystical path.

Perhaps as an unconscious response to the sere and monochromatic landscapes that characterize much of the region, bright color was ubiquitous in the visual arts of the Islamic lands. People donned brilliantly colored garments and even the kiswa, the cloth covering the Kaaba in Mecca, could be white, green or even red fabric in contrast to the somber black used today. The production, trade, and use of dyes played important roles in medieval economies. Potters developed a wide range of techniques to cloak their earth-colored products with vivid glazes, and similarly glazed tiles enveloped buildings in webs of glittering color. This keynote address will introduce the audience to many of the issues that other speakers will develop over the following two days.

Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom share the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair of Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Norma Jean Calderwood University Chair of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College. Together, they are the authors of more than a dozen books, including The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800 (1994), and Islamic Arts (1997). Their book Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (2001) was written as a companion to the 3-part PBS television series, “Islam: Empire of Faith.” Their latest collaboration is editing the three-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, due out from Oxford University Press in early 2009.

Sheila Blair is individually the author of Islamic Calligraphy (2006), Islamic Inscriptions (1998), A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Din’s Illustrated History of the World (1995), as well as hundreds of articles on various topics in Islamic art, from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to 17th-century amulets.

Jonathan Bloom is individually the author of Arts of the City Victorious: The Art and Architecture of the Fatimids in North Africa and Egypt (2007), Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (2001) and Minaret: Symbol of Islam (1989). He was the editor of Early Islamic Art and Architecture (2002) and co-author of The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque (1998), as well as author of many articles on differing aspects of Islamic art from the mosques of Cairo to medieval Islamic woodwork.

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