Collecting guide: Islamic calligraphy
Specialist Romain Pingannaud offers an expert introduction, illustrated with works sold at Christie’s ranging from pages from the Qur'an to candlesticks
1. Look out for condition
This page was originally part of a 15th-century Qur’an manuscript copied in India. The original margins have been cropped because they were probably damaged at some point of the manuscript’s history. However the text panel and the marginal decoration are particularly well preserved.
The use of gold and natural pigments mean that the colours and contrast have kept well with time. The high quality paper was originally polished and retains its fine sheen today. The crisp pigments enhance the vigorous calligraphic style known as bihari, from the eastern Indian region of Bihar. The gold, blue and black letters have elongated forms, thickened at their centre and chiselled like swords at their ends which is characteristic of the style. With its beautifully preserved condition, this page gives an excellent idea of what it was like to open a Qur’an manuscript in 15th-century India.
2. Use angles and curves as clues when identifying scripts
Calligraphy masters have attempted to formally establish, or codify, a number of different types of script throughout the ages. Of these styles, there is a main division between angular scripts, traditionally reserved for early Qu’rans and architectural decoration, and curved scripts.
Among these curved scripts are the famous Six Pens — six styles known as rayhan, muhaqqaq, naskh, thuluth, ta’liq and nasta’liq. Although codified in the medieval period, they have, remarkably, endured, and remain the main calligraphic styles today.
3. From monumental inscriptions to domestic objects
Muhammad’s first revelation — in which he was visited by the archangel Gabriel — is recorded in the Qu’ran in Arabic, a factor that led Islamic calligraphy to become the most revered of all art forms in the Islamic world. Monumental inscriptions, such as those of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, appeared on mosques and shrines from as early as the 8th century. Though primarily used for decorating religious manuscripts and artefacts, fine scripts quickly found their way onto secular objects, being used for aesthetic qualities even in non-religious context.
At first glance, it might be difficult to see why this 19th-century Indian gold and silver-decorated tray has anything to do with calligraphy. However looking closely at the decoration it appears that the inside border of this dish is decorated with elongated cartouches filled in with verses of Persian poetry. The verses are written in an elegant flowing script known as nasta’liq script. It has been executed in gold and silver — the controlled execution of these inscriptions tells much about the skills of the master who decorated the dish.
4. A particularly refined script can be as valuable as gold
This candlestick is a masterpiece. The inscription, written in thuluth script around the body, is finely executed, and was originally inlaid with gold, silver and copper, showing that it was a royal object. The inscription is large and clearly legible, yet intricately arranged on two juxtaposed layers within a single register, or line.
Although the engraved candlestick is less than 30cm high, its style lends it a monumental quality that suggests it could easily have decorated the walls of a palace or mosque. The inscription gives the name and titles of a Sultan from Yemen, al-Malik al-Mujahid Sayf al-Din ’Ali (r. 1322-63); it is as much the wealth of the material used to make the object as the impressive calligraphic style that glorifies the sultan’s name.
5. Stylised text can become a form of abstract art
This Qur’an folio written on vellum is a very early example of calligraphy, made before the arrival of paper in the Islamic world. The text itself has deep spiritual resonance for those of Islamic heritage, yet the beauty of the strong black lines on a cream background is a visual delight which can be appreciated by everyone.
This early form of Arabic script is quite challenging to read even for a native speaker. The function of copies of the Qur’an at that stage would have served more as an ‘aide memoire’ for those who had already memorised the text by heart. Thus the elegance of the stretched forms of the letters could take precedence over practical communication. The strong minimalistic aesthetic of the black text on white highlighted with small sections of gold, even without knowing the translation or the meaning of the text, means one can feel the spiritual quality of this folio.
6. Big names can matter — look out for the Picassos of the calligraphy world
The production of highly elaborate albums — combining fine examples of calligraphy and delicate paintings — was one of the most highly developed and valued forms of artistic production throughout North India and Persia. The individual elements of an album page were often drawn from different sources — combining works produced in a variety of locations at different times.
The album pages shown above feature an elegant calligraphic quatrain written in a flowing script known as nasta’liq. It was the script of choice for many 16th- and 17th-century masters of Persian calligraphy. The present piece is signed by ‘Abd al-Rashid who was probably ‘Abd al-Rashid al-Daylami (d. 1647 AD), a calligrapher working in the Persian tradition at the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The quatrain was later illuminated with gold floral scrolls and attached to the reverse of this Mughal portrait of a prince at a lion hunt. It demonstrates how calligraphy as an art form was preserved and collected, and ultimately travelled across regions and borders — both within the Islamic world and beyond.
Because calligraphy was traditionally revered above painting and illumination in the Islamic world, we have extensive records of calligraphers and their biographies, particularly from the 15th century onwards. Works signed by highly regarded court calligraphers, often highly embellished with illumination, are most sought after amongst collectors today.
7. A signature, or tughra, can help to date a piece
An important form of calligraphic signature — or seal — used extensively in the Islamic world is a tughra. With highly sophisticated overlapping letters, restricted into a confined area, this form of seal developed into an elaborate signature for rules throughout the Eastern Islamic world, being used by figures including the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman Emperors.
Formed of the name and titles of each ruler, the tughra was an individual and elegant mark of imperial authority. The marks can be vital when dating pieces, appearing across a variety of metalwork and artworks — particularly those of the Ottoman empire.
8. Look out for modern masters
The tradition of learning calligraphy from a master started as early as the 10th century, and continues today. Long and illustrious lineages of calligraphers are known — one of the earliest and most revered masters is the famous scribe Ibn al-Bawwab (d. circa 1022 AD). These lineages became very important in the Ottoman Empire, where important artists were employed by the imperial palace in Istanbul.
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While pieces produced by ancient masters can fetch very high prices at auction, 20th-century works pieces can be a good first purchase for an emerging collectors. The piece (above) is a work from the 1970s by ‘Ammar al-Munji, a Tunisian-born artist. It is a striking composition, using a script called jali thuluth mostly favoured by Ottoman artists for monumental inscriptions.