Dec 27, 2012

The "Orthodox" plate: an Islamic fusion?

by Chris Vlahonasios

I discovered this remarkable plate in a retro/antique shop in the beachside town of Rosebud (Victoria, Australia). I had never seen such a unique piece before and was even more astounded by its imagery (see below). Then I began to wonder: what style was it and was it Orthodox inspired?

Unfortunately I could not directly trace the origin of the plate. The shop owners had no clue and the company logo, stamped on the back of the plate, was covered with an adhesive ring-pad so it could be hung on walls. My first impression, based on its exotic patterns, was perhaps Moroccan inspired. However, with no knowledge in Islamic art I had to do some research.

This article is just as much a journey of discovery and learning as it is an analysis of this plate.

Islamic beliefs about art
In religious art there are geometrical or vegetal designs which are in repetitive patterns known as arabesque.[1] The arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of God.[2]

Typically, though not entirely, Islamic art has focused on the depiction of patterns and Arabic calligraphy rather than on figures. This is because Muslims believe that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and thereby a sin against God, forbidden in the Qur’an. In secular art these disciplines are not as stringently enforced, but still appear to be followed to avoid offending.

Most examples I found did not contain images of humans but repetitive abstract patterns and floral arrangements.

Moroccan art
As my first impression of the plate’s origin was perhaps Moroccan I decided to start from there before moving on to other types of Islamic art.

Art in Morocco, as in other Islamic countries, can be split into two groups: religious and secular, although both are directed by Islamic interpretation. Upon further research I came across the traditional Moroccan art form of kellij, the art of Islamic tile mosaics.

Moroccan kellij only ever form abstract patterns and designs, never pictures of living things. As mentioned before Islamic art avoids replicating nature; the only way to understand God's creation is through study, not copying.[3] Moroccan kellij patterns include stars, honeycombs, webs, steps and checkerboards.[4] In this example, using an eight or ten-pointed star in the middle the kellij pattern expands logically and coherently towards infinity.[5] The mural is trying to show that all existence is part of a complex interrelationship which only God could create.

Inspired by Roman mosaics, Moroccan artisans began creating their own styles from as early as 11th century.[6] Originally the colour scheme was earthly, basically shades of brown and white. However, in time, artists expanded the colour range to include reds, yellows, greens and blues.[7] Today, artists have included more colours such as turquoise and rose. These complex and mesmerising designs are still practiced today and can be found covering water fountains, interior walls, mosques and tombs of Morocco.

It is interesting to note that although kellij is directed by the principles of Islam, the designs have roots in the pre-Islamic Berber culture of North Africa.[8] This is where the mosaics get their rigid straight lines and hard edges, in contrast with the rounded patterns of the Middle East.[9]

With this in mind, when comparing the “Orthodox” plate with kellij, there are many differences. Kellij is highly more repetitive and geometric, whilst the plate does not have any strong straight lines. This leads weight to the argument that the “Orthodox” plate may have originated somewhere in the Middle-East due to its curved and rounded shapes. However, it was not until a few days later I stumbled across an amazing revelation.

A little piece of Morocco in Melbourne
Walking through a major Melbourne shopping centre I passed by an exotic bazaar. What captured my eye were the several plates on display (see below). I asked the shop owner where these plates were from and he said Morocco. I was amazed to see several similarities with my “Orthodox” plate. I then asked the owner, who appeared to be Moroccan himself, if he could tell me anything about the designs hoping to gain some insight. Unfortunately, he did not know anything, only that they were definitely Moroccan.

If you examine the photos it is obvious the designs are not kellij; the lines are curved and void of any geometric repetition. In the picture of plate 1 the oval-shaped diamonds accompanied with curved lines and dots are exactly the same as on the “Orthodox” plate.

In this next photo, plate 2, the lines are curved, free-flowing and not rigid. The shape of the two central patterns could be best described as tri-curved arches. This double-layered pattern is most similar to the “Orthodox” plate due to the softer, curved lines and shapes. We see these tri-curved arches appear in the “Orthodox” plates as wider drawn, repetitive patterns surrounding the “cross” and even on the cross’ endings. These curved arches seem to achieve the required geometric balance.

In this last example, plate 3, shares the same rounded-arches around the boarder as in the “Orthodox” plate. Its design is quite mesmerising as the centre is like an open flower with diamond-shapes feathering out from the centre out towards the boarder.

All shop examples contain vibrant colours with plates 1 and 3 having the exact same colour scheme as the “Orthodox” plate. As mentioned early, as Moroccan kellij developed it moved to more vibrant colours of red, yellow, green and blue then later turquoise and rose.[10] Observing the “Orthodox” plate the four colours that can be identified include green, blue, yellow and rose. All three other plates share this same colour scheme. Also, the double-line boarder seems to be common across all plates. Finally, the large dots which are accompanied with smaller dots seem to be a consistent theme across all plates.

If the shop owner was entirely sure his plates were Moroccan then this is the strongest evidence that the “Orthodox” plate is truly Moroccan inspired. All these plate distinctly have designs which appear on the “Orthodox” plate. However, we must examine other Islamic designs before jumping to conclusions.

Going further East
What makes Moroccan Islamic art, both the plates and kellij artwork, different to other forms of Islamic art is the lack of floral patterns and symbols. Islam prohibits the depiction of living objects, with the exception of garden and floral themes which make reference to Paradise.[11] It is interesting to note this incorporation of floral patterns, such as tulips and vines, is based on the traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran.[12]

For comparison, here are some examples from the peak of the Ottoman Empire in modern-day Turkey:
Mosque lamp
early 16th century – covered in floral images

mid-16th century – dense spiral scrolls sprinkled with blossoms, leaves, and arabesques revolve from the six-pointed star placed in the center of the polylobed medallion.

1550 AD – peacock dish with a complex vegetal composition combining elements from the saz repertoire – long serrated leaves, composite flowers and buds – with a more naturalistic style of plant motif – artichoke stems in bloom, flowers with swirling petals, tulips, and perhaps delicate violets.[13]

Here are some examples from Iran:
late 13th-early to 14th century – depiction of rabbit surrounded by floral design.[14]

Late-17th century – stylized vegetal decoration.[15]

Drink flask
1640-1665 AD – moulded decoration of a music scene.[16]

Some examples from Afghanistan:
12th century – simple pattern.[17]

9th-10th century – decorated with some abstract patterns, but not geometrically complex.[18]

Although these sorts of imagery may be wide spread in different part of the Islamic world, the art that developed in Moroccan clearly did not follow this trend. The kellij discipline was always about avoiding any representation of nature. Kellij is highly rigid in its expression because of its desire to portray the complexity of God’s existence. But secular Moroccan art has allowed slightly more expression in the use of curved lines and oval shapes.

Christian symbolism
It is undeniable that the image in the middle of the plate is a cross for it does not resemble a flower, honeycomb, checkerboard or any other image. However, what type of cross? Regardless which way the plate is rotated the “cross” is a Greek-style Cross.

The Greek-style Cross was one of the earliest designs used in Christianity. It is characterised by all four arms being of equal length. It is known as the Greek Cross because when turned diagonally it forms the ‘X’ shape which is the Greek letter “chi”, the Greek initial for Christ.[19] The design then developed to include trefoil ends which are symbolic of the Holy Trinity and also amounts to twelve, representing the number of Apostles.

The “Orthodox” plate is full of crosses. At all four compass points there are smaller crosses each with four coloured, oval-shaped diamonds and embroidered with blue lines. Such designs did not appear on any other Moroccan plates I have seen so far, especially as it is unlikely any Muslim would want to paint crosses on their work.

As mentioned early, kellij patterns begin with a shape in the middle of the mural which then expands into a complex geometric pattern outwards to infinity.[20] Therefore, is it possible the artist of this “Orthodox” plate took these principles into account and inserted the Cross? Despite kellij being an Islamic art even this expression is a coherent and logically depiction of the Christian God and His infinite magnificence. Do not Christ and the Holy Trinity surpass all understanding which can only be understood through the beauty of Creation?

This proves Orthodox teaching can be expressed through Islamic Moroccan art. Even the use of eight, ten and fifty-pointed stars can work in harmony with Orthodoxy theology – eight is symbolic for the day of Resurrection, ten for the number of Commandments given to Moses and fifty is the number of days for Pentecost. 

Another common depiction of Christian symbolism are images of flowers and plants. In the top and bottom quarters one can see what appears to be flowers with green-petals and outstretched leaves. Although flowers also appear in some Islamic art, but when one looks at the plate’s overall composition, including the Cross in the centre, the images combine to clearly express Christian notions of life, renewal and Salvation.

Firstly, is this “Orthodox” plate painted in the Islamic Moroccan style? From an aesthetical perspective the plate clearly shares the same features of secular Moroccan art which is inspired by kellij, including the repetitive geometry and colour schemes. Even compared to the bazaar shop, all plates share in common shapes, colours and geometric structure.

Secondly, is the subject matter of the plate Orthodox? Based on the evidence at hand the design of the plate contains an ancient version of the Cross which was Greek inspired. The plate also has several other crosses encompassed in a highly decorative pattern and boarder. It is also common of Orthodox art to emphasis the glory of God and the Cross. With all this in mind it is my opinion that the subject matter is Orthodox.

This plate is symbolic of the nature of the Orthodox Faith. Orthodox Christianity does not attempt to snub out existing cultures, but seeks to infuse elements that help express the Christian doctrine. If Morocco was to somehow convert to Orthodoxy overnight few changes would have to be made. Orthodoxy respects the creativity and ingenuity of all people. Even the number of points on kellij stars correlates easily to illustrate teachings of the Faith. Their art work compliments Orthodoxy’s understanding of God’s Power, Essence and Creation.

So, even though it appears likely that this plate was meant to be Orthodox inspired, what we still do not know is who painted it? Were they an Orthodox Christian, a convert or an atheist who blended the two faiths? Although we have identified the plate’s inspiration, it is the identity of the artist that will forever remain a mystery.

* Please note photos of kellij works shown in this article are being used for the purpose of eduction, academic and cultural discussion. The above examples are from the following sites:

[10] See under ‘Moroccan art’ heading
[13] - Louvre Museum
[20] See under ‘Moroccan art’ heading


Anonymous said...

I have to say it is very informative. Your detailed comparison between the Muslim art and Orthodox is valuable as well as their rationale not to use human figures.

Muhammad Yahya said...

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Anonymous said...

The designs you refer to have their inspirations originally within Middle Eastern and Greek antiquity, and pre-date Christianity and Islam. One of the key principles behind it, is the use of sacred geometry that utilises complex mathematical equations to create various patterns and express thoughts about the divine. The Byzantines took the concept and developed it further, expressing much of the teachings of the Gospel. It is only due to iconoclasm and the restoration of icons that in Orthodoxy, that from that time onwards, the use of sacred geometry was replaced by covering entire church walls and ceilings with icons.
However and thankfully, the Muslims learnt this tradition from the Christian craftsmen (who built the majority of the early great complexes and mosques of Islam), and they preserved it and perpetuated it. And it is thanks to Muslim craftsmen, that this wonderful heritage of sacred geometry has survived to our day. This is not to say that sacred geometry disappeared completely from the Orthodox world, but it went into decline and did not hold as great a prominence as it once did. In any case the strong cultural and historical ties between both societies is borne out by a common heritage, as the semi-nomadic Arabs emerged from their homeland into the wider world and adopted and absorbed much of Orthodox Christian culture, but adapted to their specific needs or perspective. Arab historians even cite that the Orthodox monasteries were the places where Arab scholars were able to learn and translate the many works that gave rise to the golden era of Classical Arabic learning and enlightenment, (it's a pity these are the same monasteries which are being destroyed by American sponsored jihadists). Despite this, there is an interesting reference within the Quranic surah "Al-Ru'm" which relate how Muslims should rejoice over Byzantium's triumph over the pagan Persians, while various Hadiths explain that this rejoicing is due to the fact that those who are closest to the Muslims in thought and heart are the Orthodox. In additional commentaries they highlight that the unsavoury and aggressive exhortations against Christians refer to those who are not Orthodox Christians. In more recent times, there have been Muslim scholars who have looked at these verses and teachings in light of eschatology, as foretelling the end of times as the need for the two societies to be united against a common enemy. But that of course is another discussion.

Online Quran Classes said...

such nice and beautiful pieces of antique, I would say this was collection.

Quran for Kids said...

this is called "the art", great share.

Gwen said...

Wow, what a lesson. Thank you for pursuing more information and sharing your findings.