Islamic Ornament & The Spiritual in Art (Oleg Grabar)


Just finished reading Oleg Grabar’s The Mediation of Ornament for a survey class on Religion and Art. Written by one the great art historians of Islamic art, The Mediation of Ornament is more like a meditation after a career long immersion into this visual material. By way of methodology, Grabar intentionally brackets historical-genetic interpretations as well as questions relating to the social position and function of Islamic ornament, or the taxonomies of individual motifs and formal analysis. Not inattentive to these contextual framings, Grabar’s methodological focus is on the ornament itself and the visual impression made by ornament upon the human viewer/user. The results are speculative in the deepest sense of the word.

Of signal interest is the way this study helps the reader better grasp the dialectical relations between religion, art, and larger spiritual matrices, art emerging from out of religion, into larger spiritual matrices, and then back into religion. By “religion I mean to refer here for the purpose of this analysis particular and culturally specific ideas, belief, rites, law and other institutions relating to God and the orientation of a human community around God). By matrix I mean some spiritual or cosmic super-dimension sensed as permeating the physical order. About this, more below.

For now, we start with the observation that ornamental design, as understood by Grabar is a mediating figure. By this he means something simple and something complex. At the most simple level of things, ornamental figures are applied to objects. They mediate; they sit between the object and the viewer/user. They draw the viewer/user towards the object they cover and whose space they fill. Far more speculative is what follows. At some point over the course of decades of meticulous observation, ornamental figures of applied art turn into daemonic figures. With an explicit allusion to Plato’s Symposium and the mediating figure of eros in the introduction to this study, Grabar’s sober art historical point of reflection spins off into wild and wooly speculation about energy, life-energy, and the elsewhere of the afterlife.


There are two related terms to define. “Decoration” refers to “anything, even whole mosaic or sculpted programs, applied to an object or beginning” Related to decoration, “ornament” is  that aspect of decoration which appears not to have another purpose but to enhance its carrier (the object) (p.5) Associated with adorning, ornament implies effective completion of an object or act, i.e. perfection. By associating ornament with perfection, Grabar has taken one step into medieval metaphysics and theology, without, however, having to do so. In this analysis, the action is to decorate an object, while ornament is that part of the act that brings to completion [p.26]. From Gombrich, Grabar also understand ornament to be the treatment of a surface, the filling, framing, and linking of  space, but also, for Grabar, to transform that space and its carrier (p.41) A simple substance, a stony substance, is transformed into something elegant, beautiful, sensuous, more perfect, more powerful. In doing this, ornament carries beauty and pleasure while filtering messages, meanings, signs, symbols that are NOT inherent in the form of the ornament itself (p.227). Ornament strengthens bond between user/viewer and the material object by enhancing the visual pleasure of looking at it (p.230).



[1] Writing as ornament, i.e. ornamental writing. Ornament in writing evokes control and forcefulness (p.230). Is the script legible or illegible? It would seem that so much of Islamic ornamental writing is not immediately legible, even to speakers and readers at home in the language. This kind of ornament conveys a message but more than that [p.98, 101]. In deluxe manuscripts, the writing is reduced to almost illegible. The script hides in and peeks out between geometric squares full of vegetal figures. The text is not intended to be read. The effect is “monoptic,” i.e. to be taken in at one glance to make a visible impression prior to reading and semantic comprehension.

[2] Architecture, i.e. architectural figures used in ornament. Architectual figures determine relations between the inside from outside. They signal importance (p.193). And also boundaries and protection, authority and and power (p.230)

[3] Geometric figures evoke regular figures creating regular patterns (p.130).And also order. order (p.230). Apart from that, Grabar resists reading geometric ornament in terms of thematic or doctrinal messages or correlates. What is given is simply the creation of richness of material and tacticle feel, alson with enchantment, psychic involvement, freedom, and thinking.

[4] Nature, i.e. vegetal and animal figures evoke growth and movement, the raw life of nature, but in dream-like and unreal figurations that heighten the visual impact (pp.217, 221, 224). .


Reading Grabar with critical attention, we can deduce three logical relations by which we might want to understand art in relation to “religion” and to “spiritual matrix,” as we have tentatively defined these above. The first relation is the act of severing the relation between religion and art, in this case ornament. Second is the integration of the aesthetic material into a larger spiritual matrix. Third is the integration of religion into that matrix by reintegrating the art and the spiritual matrix in art back into religion. This third relation goes entirely missing in The Mediation of Ornament. I tried looking for it in The Formation of Islamic Art and couldn’t find it there.

Here are the three steps:


The referential relationship between ornament and “religion” is first severed in Grabar’s analysis of ornament and in ornament itself. Let’s assume that this is not just his subjective viewpoint, but that he’s onto something important about ornament itself, or at least about ornament in Islamic cultures. Grabar give us to consider how Islamic ornament itself is unhinged from direct reference to “religion.” Ornament makes no appeal to real organization in the world. It creates its own order. In relation to religion, geometric and floral ornament in Islamic art makes no one-to-one reference to the written text of revelation or to beliefs and rituals. Throughout the entirety of The Mediation of Ornament, Grabar will be found resisting symbolic, iconographic readings of ornament. Vegetal motifs do not refer to Paradise. Geometric ornamentation does not refer to the unicity of God in Islamic theology, and so on and so on. This is most obvious in artworks that are “secular,” that have no religious function per se, but which ornament the objects and ornament the lives of princes and courtiers and other members of the dominant ruling class (things like rugs, drinking cups, ceramic bowls, and lusterware). It’s also true of the ornament that works to enhance mosques.


Grabar’s interest in ornament is not simply art for art’s sake, ornament for the sake of ornament. About the material, Grabar looks upon ornament in relation to a spiritual matrix, one that is bigger than “religion,” and which undergirds and permeates life and the meaning of existence. Readers should note the register of Grabar’s writing stepping up. As much as Grabar resists religious or symbolic interpretations of Islamic ornament, he keeps coming back again and again to the language of “life,” “energy,” “eternal life,” “transformation” and “elsewhere” in his art interpretation.

The word “matrix” is my own. I could also call it “the spiritual in art.” To be sure, Grabar never uses either term or theorizes about his own performance of this dimensionality as such. Reading into Grabar analysis of Islamic ornament, what I am calling matrix is something not unlike what Shahab Ahmed in What is Islam? calls “pre-text.” By pre-text Ahmed means a larger truth or dimension that is prior to and behind the written text of Islamic revelation. As per Ahmed, The relation between Text and Pre-Text is the relation between the Seen and the Unseen. Beyond Quran, law and so-called essentials of faith like the five pillars of Islamic devotion, Ahmed sees the Pre-Text of revelation, an Unseen matrix of power and meaning evoked in scholastic rationalism, Sufi mysticism, erotic love poetry and the culture of wine drinking, and also Islamic art. Not simply to be looked upon as elite phenomena, Ahmed sees this reflex widely defused throughout a complex of Islamic cultures extending from the Balkans to the Bengal. If I am justified in reading Ahmed and Grabar in tandem, then it would be the case that Grabar’s analysis lends this speculative concept or dimension a more intensely involved visual aspect.

About this spiritual matrix in ornamental writing, Grabar points our attention to those frequent examples when the script becomes harder and harder to read and where the visual impression lifts off semantic meaning. “It is as though the point of the writing is no longer the concrete message of its words, but something else…It is rather as though an unbridled energy transformed letters into floral designs, combatting heroes, smiling faces, or severe linear compositions” (p.101). Grabar insists that none of this is about religion as narrowly conceived, or to be read as revelation or as esoteric mystical doctrine. Instead, ornament is more profoundly woven into fabrics of classical Muslim life. Grabar goes on to say that ornament in writing evokes “the transient nature of life and on the mediating power of the community in making possible the preparation for another life, the true and only life. Words, spoken, but especially written, held the whole community and later a number of independent communities together. They were the natural cement or glue of society. But their importance was not in themselves, it was rather in their mediation between several different lives or levels of living, this life and eternal life, the life of the simple man [sic] and the authority of the ruler, the life of toil and the desire for pleasure” (p.111).

About geometric ornament, it reaches a limit past which it can become formulaic, according to Grabar. To avoid this, he looks to geometric folk art traditions, especially weaving and textile traditions associated with women. Geometry remains “powerfully creative” when aligned with “continuous life forces of society.”  “Geometry really works only as an intermediary. As an intermediary, it leaves to the viewer or user a freedom of choice no other intermediary seems to offer. In this respect, as a harbinger of free choice, geometry is a most dangerous mediator. It forces one to look and to decide what to think, what to feel, and even how to act.” Here, we might add, is how ornament has nothing to do with conventional religion. Grabar continues, “[I]t rarely forces us to do anything precise and concrete like sleep or pray.” For instance, “Humble triangles on a dress or in the weaving of a basket or the very sophisticated brick walls of Iranian towers share an ability to make us wonder what they mean, because, like moths or butterflies, we are attracted to an abstraction that seems to be devoid of cultural specificity. It is only meant to be beatify” (p.154).

But is that all there is to ornament, only to beautify? Just earlier, Grabar writes about geometric ornament in terms of “passage” between worlds. In a speculative voice, there he wrote how the “beautiful Timurid walls circumscribe some other space than the observers and make it desirable or admirable. The muqarnas of a Mamluk gate is the threshold between two worlds. The multifaceted cup or ewer adds to the pleasure of drinking from it. In all cases, the geometry is a passage, at best a magnet, to something else that it does not identify which the culture deems desirable. Inside palaces or mausoleums, as in the royal tombs near Rabat or in the Alhambra with rich textures of geometric designs, it is a passage toward the functions of living or awaiting eternal life that is expressed by geometric forms” (ibid.). In this tradition and in this analysis, beauty is spiritual.

In architectural figures of mosques that appear in Islamic ornament, the reference is not to specific buildings. The function of this ornament as it appears in a Quranic codex is to signal “importance and uniqueness by physically and visually separating it from its surrounding or by inciting in the user a sentiment of awe, perhaps of holiness, certainly of anticipatory and sensory pleasure, as he opened the book.” Here is the intimation of “a force of presence and a solidity of power or of authority that is transmitted to whatever is connected with it.” Grabar insists that the pleasure here is not “paradisiacal in the afterlife.” But this is a strange thing to say because, as per his own analysis, they evoke “the dream that life can be as beautiful as one imagines Paradise to be and as sacred texts have said it is.” The key point is this. Ornamental figures “evoke rather than represent.”

Nature in ornamental figures such as trees, grapes, vine, scrolls, birds and animals is not supposed to represent life and eternal life, but rather evokes life and eternal life. With his eye on traditional and contemporary art criticism in China, Grabar writes about “a sense of growth and movement” and “a feeling” of “life forces.” Vegetation and other natural figures transform “everything [they touch] into something…It always leads everywhere and yet hauntingly comes back as an evocation of life, a form that, most of the time, appears in movement, as though, like life, it had a beginning and an end.” In this transformation, the object covered in ornament now “vibrates” with vegetal or animal life. Just life? Ornament from nature “always leads elsewhere than toward itself.” (p.224).

This second register is the one that heightened by Grabar’s enthusiasm and energy, as if in his art historical writing he seeks to channel for us, to communicate the . life force that saturates ornamental figures. If he is right in his subjectively felt response to the visual impact of ornamental objects and figures, then we have learned something about the spiritual in art, in the case relating to the power of ornament to transform objects, the cold hard surface and material structure.



Grabar clearly wants to hold conventional religion at a critical distance. But there is a third formal relation between religion, art, and the spiritual matrix in art that goes entirely missing in this animated and animating study of ornament. This is the inflection point at which ornament as super-matrix is re-attached or reintegrated into “religion.” To use Ahmed’s terminology, Grabar’s meditation on Islamic ornament gets to the Pre-Text and Con-Text of Revelation, while occluding questions regarding the Text of Revelation, i.e. religion.

What Grabar’s exploration of ornament as visual presence would tell us about religion is that the relation between “religion” and spiritual super-matrix is complex. They are not identical. They are distinct without being entirely separable. They allude to each other and intertwine. Ornament cuts across all sectors of Islamic culture, leaving us to wonder whether or not religious things like the shahada, prayer, alms, fasting during Ramadan, and hajj are themselves ornamental figures, not “mere” ornament qua decoration, but ornament in the deeper spiritual sense intended by Grabar.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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