Robert Hillenbrand

The Uses of Light in Islamic Architecture

The theme of light manifests itself in remarkably diverse ways in Islamic architecture. To impose order on this potentially chaotic mass of data, one may propose certain basic categories. Directed light includes oculi, windows, skylights and other openings. Reflected light invites discussion of water, smooth surfaces, glass mosaic, mirror decoration and certain kinds of tilework, especially luster tiles. Certain colors or materials were particularly favored for their capacity to absorb and to radiate light: ivory, alabaster, gold, white marble and the like, whether as outer cladding or at selected locations within a building, for example in muqarnas vaults. Lighting devices such as candles, pierced metal or glass lamps, or polycandela of various kinds could transform the impact of a dim interior and were often placed with special care so as to lay particular emphasis on given parts of a building, such as the mihrab, the bay preceding it or along a sequence of arcades leading to a vanishing point. Contrasts of open and closed spaces, and the creation of transient patterned or colored spaces by mashrabiyya grilles or stained glass made the most of a limited ration of light. External decoration in different degrees of relief made the most of the changing angles of sunlight throughout the day, giving a monument a subtly different character from one hour to the next. Finally, the symbolic associations of light deserve close study, from the use of appropriate Qur’anic quotations to titulature, from the inner designs of domes to the finials of minarets; in this context the role of heavenly bodies — sun, moon and stars — is crucial.

Robert Hillenbrand, FBA, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art, Edinburgh University, has published 9 books and some 160 articles, and edited or co-edited a further 9 books. He has been Slade Professor at Cambridge and has held visiting professorships at Princeton, UCLA, Bamberg, Dartmouth College, New York, Cairo and Groningen. His interests focus on Islamic architecture (especially in Iran and Umayyad Syria), book painting and iconography.