Gold inscriptions set against a blue background are prominent in such well known early Islamic works as the Dome of the Rock and the Umayyad mosques at Damascus and Medina and the mosque at Córdoba, and of course in the remarkable Blue Qur’an. Yet the pre-Islamic history of this epigraphic scheme, and its meaning and reception in the early Islamic world, seem to have elicited only limited attention from scholars. In the case of the Blue Qur’an, it has been associated with the supposed use of purple in some late antique books, which is misleading. Blue backgrounds for gold inscriptions can in fact be found in earlier Roman and contemporary Western luxury manuscripts, but that does not per se explain why blue would have been chosen. A surprising body of evidence suggests that, although there are important precedents and analogues in Roman and Late Antique art, for example in works with cosmological import, the early Islamic inscriptions in gold against a blue background may also be connected with peacocks and with Solomon, and a conception of rulership not founded primarily upon Roman inspiration.
LAWRENCE NEES studied at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, where he received a doctoral degree in 1977. He has taught at the University of Delaware since 1978, where he is professor in the Department of Art History. Currently the vice-president of the International Center of Medieval Art, his research areas focus on the earlier medieval period, especially ca. 500–1000 C.E., including Late Antique, Insular, Frankish and Byzantine as well as Islamic art and history. He is the author of From Justinian to Charlemagne, European Art 565–787: an Annotated Bibliography (G.K. Hall, 1985), The Gundohinus Gospels (Medieval Academy of America, 1987), A Tainted Mantle: Hercules and the Classical Tradition at the Carolingian Court (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), Early Medieval Art (Oxford University Press, 2002), and editor of Approaches to Early-Medieval Art (Medieval Academy of America, 1998), and is currently completing Illuminating The Word: on the Beginnings of Medieval Book Decoration. His next book will be Essays in the Margins of Early Islamic Art.
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