Beautiful Gibberish: Pseudo-Arabic in Medieval and Renaissance Art

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painters and sculptors often incorporated reliefs into their works. Many were legible texts in Latin or other European languages, but sometimes the painters reached the East, borrowing the languages ​​of the Holy Land. Arabic was particularly popular, but there was one small problem: before the 16th century, virtually no European knew the language. the solution? Fake Arabic.

Beginning in the early fourteenth century, some Italian paintings are characterized by a delicate, flowing line that at first glance appears to be Arabic. A closer look reveals that it is actually a simulated text. The artists sought to reproduce the form of the Arabic language without actually knowing what they were reproducing. They saw beautiful squiggles, so they drew beautiful squiggles. Art historians call this style of decoration pseudo-Arabic or pseudo-Kufic, although the latter term is confusing because the kufic script is heavy, angular and the figures produced by European artists resemble the curvilinear cursive thuluth.

Pseudo-Arabic often appears in religious imagery, often in the form of an inscribed band on the hem of a garment or in the halo of a sacred figure. These two conventions may have been derived from actual Islamic artwork. In the early centuries of Islamic history, rulers and other individuals holding important positions wore special robes with embroidered bands of texts. Those were called embroiderFrom a Persian word meaning “adornment” or “adornment”. It is common to see it in European art embroider– The ribbons similar to the hem of the garments of the Holy Family, especially the Virgin Mary. The artists understood that such a garment indicates the high status of its wearer, so they borrowed it from the caliphs and their entourage and put it on the most important figures in Christianity. The actual Arabic versions of these garments do not appear to have had Islamic religious inscriptions presenting a problem. The pseudo-Arabic designs that often appear in the gilded halos of angels and other religious figures may have been inspired by inlaid metal items, such as dishes and bowls, which often had circular inscriptions in Arabic. Islamic metalwork (and many other types of portable artwork) were brought to Europe in large quantities by Venetian merchants.

Why did European artists care about the Arabic language to this extent? One possibility is that they mistakenly believed that Arabic was the language of early Christianity. Medieval Europeans were aware that Christianity and the Bible came from the Middle East, but were vague about the details. The Knights Templar, for example, believed that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was the biblical Temple of Solomon, but in fact, it was built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in the late seventh century AD. The interior of the Dome of the Rock features prominently Arabic inscriptions, so the Knights Templar must have been unaware that the presence of the Arabic language in the area only dates back to the time of the Islamic conquest (circa 636 AD). Another thing to consider is the role that luxury goods imported from the Islamic world, such as textiles, glass, metals, and ceramics, played in the culture of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. These finely crafted items were a symbol of wealth and status. By incorporating Islamic ornamentation into their artwork, the artists were able to pay homage to the religious figures they were portraying, while at the same time declaring the wealth and refined taste of their patrons.

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