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This manuscript bears many of the hallmarks of the Qur’anic manuscript tradition of the late ninth and early tenth centuries CE.This style of Kufic script, termed by renowned Islamicist Francois Déroche as “mature Abbasid,” was widely employed from the mid-ninth through mid-tenth centuries, during the height of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE).1 Despite the development and common use by the ninth century of a system of diacritical markings that aided the reading of Arabic, only one instance of letter pointing can be found in this present example (in the second line).2 Vocalization, the indication of specific vowel sounds, is aided by red and green dots throughout the text. It is difficult to know with certainty whether these marks are original to the script, as many contemporary texts minimized the use of letter pointing and vocalization markers in favor of an overall aesthetic of austerity.3
The provenance of this manuscript is difficult to trace, although the style of Kufic resembles that of other contemporary manuscripts produced in Syria and Egypt. The ruling of the script is only slightly imperfect, indicating a practiced and competent hand. The exaggerated horizontal stretching of Arabic characters, known as mashq, appears on every line except for the first. The horizontality of the script is punctuated intermittently by the sweeping verticality of some characters, several of which cross into neighboring lines of text. Characters are evenly spaced, providing a sense of regular rhythm to the script. However, the seven lines of text appear rather tightly packed, giving the sense of a compact block of text, the dimensions of which bear the same geometrical ratio (2:3) to those of the page. The scribe’s use of mashq to elongate certain words coupled with the arrangement of the text suggests a conscious attempt to achieve a unified geometric aesthetic. Many early Qur’anic texts from the eighth and ninth centuries demonstrate similar sensitivity to geometrical ratios.4
Verses are separated by a kind of floral rosette composed of red and green dots with an extremely fine line of brown ink linking each to a central gold dot. The fineness of the lines and the shape and color of these dots—especially the tint of green used—suggests that these were made by a different pen than that used to execute the script. Another gold element, surrounded also by a fine line in brown pigment, appears in the last line of the text on this page. Resembling a lowercase “a” in the English alphabet, this is the Arabic character ha, which was commonly used as a fifth verse marker in Qur’anic manuscripts from this period: in this case, the ha denotes the end of the fifteenth verse of Surah 87. These decorative markers seem to interrupt the even spacing between words; two lie completely outside the formal rectilinear grid created by the text. The characteristics of these verse markers strongly suggest that they were added at a later time.
Therefore this appears to be a Qur’anic manuscript that was executed in two distinct stages. The original text was written according to a convention common to the late ninth century: one that favored an aesthetic of austerity through abstraction over legibility. At some later point, elaborated verse separators and perhaps some additional diacritical markers were added to assist the reader, thereby enhancing the functionality of the manuscript. This particular manuscript may have come from a type of prayer book known as a juz’, a single volume in a set of thirty—one for each day of the month—that comprised a complete edition of the Qur’an.5 If so, it is tempting to consider how a pious Muslim might have appreciated and used this text over a thousand years ago to contemplate the power and majesty of the Divine.
Written and Researched by Jeffrey Brown, Medieval Portland Capstone
1 Francois Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 34-35.
The term Kufic derives from the city of al-Kufah, in modern southern Iraq, but examples of this script can be found in manuscripts from all throughout medieval Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. See also Widjan Ali, The Arab Contribution to Islamic Art: From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Centuries (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press,1999), 79.
2 Martin Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination ( London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1976), 18. Francois Déroche, Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script (London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 2006), 222-24. Marcus Fraser and Will Kwiatkowski, Ink and Gold: Islamic Calligraphy ( Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 25-26.
3 Fraser and Kwiatkowski, 39-40. For contemporary manuscripts of similar script style and execution, see Fraser and Kwiatkowski, 30-51, and Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, 67-107. In particular, see Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, 97, for another manuscript that contains these same verses of Surah 87.
4 Déroche, Islamic Codicology, 169-171. See also the later Qur’anic manuscript from this current collection for this attention to geometrical and mathematical ratios.
5 Fraser and Kwiatkowski, 49.