Drawing Mamluk Arabesques at the V&A, London

Detail of Arabesque Panel, Museum no. A.99-1930. Copyright V&A, London.

I have spent many peaceful afternoons exploring treasures at the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A, partly in preparation for my Islamic Art History Courses at the City Lit, and partly for my own pleasure.

One of my enduring interests is tracing the origins of design motifs that we have come to see as distinctive to Islamic visual culture. One of the most prominent themes is the Arabesque, a surface-covering network composed of scrolling tendrils and palmettes. The Palmette is the primary motif, and it has a long history of development, going back to the palmette friezes of Ancient Egypt, Classical Greece and Ancient Persia, before it was assimilated and further evolved within the Islamic canon.

At its inception, Islamic art absorbed the immediate visual cultures of Sassanian Persia and Byzantium, and we can see early iterations of the Islamic palmette in fragments of 9th century stucco or plaster fragments from excavations at Samarra in Iraq. For more on this, please see my previous post “Exhibits at the British Museum Islamic Galleriesunder Lost Cities.

Drawing from the Mamluk Panel

In this post I will focus on the Arabesque designs on a V&A treasure from the Mamluk Sultanates, based in Cairo and ruling over Egypt, Syria,and Western Arabia between the 13th and the 15th centuries. Geometry, surface design, the art of the Qur’an, crafts and architecture reached a high degree of sophistication under Mamluk patrons.

Drawings made from the carved marble panel. Anita Chowdry

Most important is not to be inhibited about whether you think you can draw nicely or not – it is an entirely personal activity, like writing your private journal. Drawing is a process by which you take pleasure in focussing your full attention on an object and gaining knowledge – it can be as naive as you like, or even take the form of schematic lines, scribbles and smudges with lots of writing and notes. You do it purely for yourself. As such, it can even be therapeutic.

Museum drawing is a great way to get a deeper understanding of objects and designs – you become wholly immersed in the subject, and the visual lessons learned become imprinted in your consciousness through the process. Museums encourage the activity, and even provide portable stools so that you can set yourself up comfortably.

The general rule is that you only use pencil – nothing wet, or messy, or scratchy, which can threaten the safety of the objects and their cases.  You can also take photographs for reference, as long as you do not use flash. Photography in the low lighting stipulated by the museums’ conservators is challenging however, so I prefer to rely on the V&A Collections Database for my reference images, which you can download for personal use.

Follow-up diagram of construction of the design. Anita Chowdry

One of my motivations for drawing these designs is to gain an understanding of how they were constructed. I use my museum sketches to work up analytical diagrams like the one above. I also use photographs and information from the museum database to help me. The design is composed in two layers:

  • The under- layer is made up of Archemedian Spirals flipped along two lines of reflection, which form the basis of the Arabesque design. 
  • The Split Palmettes are quite ‘chunky’ with deeply cut textural details, similar to the effect seen in those early Samarra Stucco panels.
  • Other elements in the Arabesque design include single leaves or Palmettes, Trefoil Buds, Tie Bars composed of half-trefoils, and various Flourishes and Curls that lend cohesion to the design.
  • The diagram on the lower right of the page is a formal construction of the ‘ideal’ split palmette, though I doubt if such a construction was ever used in practice. It is just fun to do the geometry!
  • The upper layer, which I have painted golden-red, is based on a Cusped Roundel, modified to Ogival Points top and bottom, and finished off with leaf-shaped Finials.

Carved marble Panel (recto and verso), made in Cairo, Museum no. A.99-1930. Copyright V&A, London.

The museum database yields some interesting additional information about the panel: the design was carved into a marble slab between 1450 and 1500 C.E., and salvaged from a house in Cairo at the time it was being demolished in the 19th century. It has traces of red paint and gilding on it. A fascinating detail is that it was made on a recycled Byzantine panel, and so has an older design on the back – a cross standing on a globe, believed to have been carved between 500 and 650 C.E.

In contemplating an object like this ‘first-hand’ as it were, one immerses oneself in the layers of history it holds – the Christian symbol of its original intention, elegantly sparse and confident, requisitioned nearly a millennium later to serve an Islamic imperial power, carefully crafted by a master artisan. Then discarded, and salvaged by a private home-owner to add lustre to his space for a lifetime or more, then saved from oblivion by a foreign power by which agency it finds itself in London as an object of study. And now, another half-millennium later, the carved panel still speaks to us, and yields the secrets of the master craftsman’s knowledge to those who want to look and find inspiration for new interpretations and creative endeavour.

I think it has earned its keep!