Decorative wall tiles are a distinctive feature of Islamic art

Sheikh Lutfallah Mosque in Isfahan
(Image: Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom)

The term ‘Islamic art’ generally refers to the arts of all Islamic cultures and not not necessarily created by or for Muslims. The term does not refer to a particular style or period, but covers a broad scope, encompassing the arts produced in Muslim regions from Spain to India during the last fourteen hundred years.

One of the most distinctive features of Islamic art is the decorative tiles on the interior and exterior walls of mosques and imperial palaces. Although glazed bricks arranged in figural panels had been used in the architecture of early civilizations, the use of wall tiles in Islamic architecture began in the ninth century with the Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty.

Mihrab of Great Mosque of Kairouan
Mihrab of Great Mosque of Kairouan

The first tiles involved the painting of designs on glazed surfaces in various metallic oxides and then fired in a low-oxygen kiln. These tiles were installed around 862 in the mihrab of the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia; only a small number of these tiles have survived. The mosques decorators arranged them in a pattern to cover larger surfaces, but did not cover the surface completely, perhaps because the tiles were expensive to produce.

From the eleventh century on, builders in the eastern Islamic lands began to experiment with glazed elements to provide colour and contrast to the brick walls. Initially, these tiles were turquoise blue, but eventually other colours such as white and cobalt blue were used, and larger surfaces were covered. Tiles were also used to protect the interiors of buildings. In the twelfth century, Iranian potters had perfected the art of making thin vessels from a stone-paste ceramic and decorating them with enamel or luster paint. This method involved the addition of large amounts of crushed quartz to produce the hard, white, translucent ceramic, in an attempt to imitate the Chinese porcelains. Lusterware was an expensive ceramic technique due to the extra labour and material required to produce them. These tiles were reserved for large mihrabs and panels to cover cenotaphs.

Seljuk brick and tile mosaic decoration
Majid-i Jami, Iran
(Image: Archnet)

Rectangular tiles could be simply arranged to enliven dull surfaces or make more complex patterns in a tile mosaic. To form mosaics, the large coloured tiles were cut into small shapes which were laid face down on a prepared design, covered with a layer of plaster and formed into larger plaques which were then attached to the wall. This labour-intensive technique allowed artists to be creative in their designs. This artistic style was developed during the Seljuk period (ruled Persia 1038-1118).  Although interrupted by the Mongol conquests in the thirteenth century, Iranian artists perfected the technique of completely covering a wall surface with a mosaic of tiles of brilliant colours.

The expensive intricacy of tile mosaic led artists to develop cheaper ways to achieve the multi-coloured effects. The tile mosaic technique continued to be used for prominent Iranian buildings well into the seventeenth century. The less prominent areas of the buildings were covered with tiles produced through cheaper techniques.

By the early fifteenth century, Central Asian and Iranian craftsmen brought their tile techniques to the Ottoman (1299–1923) regions. The Central Asian technique for achieving multi-coloured surfaces using underglaze painting became popular in Ottoman lands. Some of the first attempts decorated hexagonal tiles on cobalt blue with designs copying the Chinese blue-and-white wares. Eventually the tiles were made square or rectangular  and included more colours: turquoise, blue, green, purple, and the distinctive red associated with the city of Iznik, Turkey. The decoration of the interiors of Ottoman mosques was dominated by large blue tiles and paint which has given the famous mosque its popular name: the “Blue Mosque.”

Mughal tile

The Mughals (1526–1857) of the Indian Subcontinent did not use tiles for decoration, they preferred the parchin kari: a decoration from inlaid panels of semi-precious stones, with jewels in some cases, as can be seen in the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and other imperial commissions. The motifs are usually floral and relate to plants in Mughal miniatures.

With the collapse of imperial rule and the increasing Western influence, Islamic art, which was strongly supported by court patronage, began to decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Industries with long-standing histories such as pottery in Iran, closed down while others such as metalwork, did not produce innovative designs.

Sheila Blair, Islamic Art, at Islamic Arts & Architecture 
Sheila Blair, Jonathan Bloom, “Tiles as Architectural Decoration,” Islam Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein, Peter Delius, Konemann, 2000

Research by Nimira Dewji


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