Decorative Arts

views updated May 21 2018


DECORATIVE ARTS. Broadly understood, the decorative arts comprise objects that possess artistic qualities and were created by skilled makers, but do not belong to the general categories of painting, sculpture, or architecture. They include, but are not limited to, the decoration and furnishing of interiors, personal adornment (costume and jewelry), and, later, with the rise of industrialization, product design. From its origin in the mid-nineteenth century, methodology in decorative arts studies concentrated on connoisseurshipdating, attribution, establishment of formal and regional categorieswhich became increasingly specialized, usually divided by medium and country of origin (French porcelain, English furniture, German pewter, etc.). Since the 1970s, the field has been enriched by trends adapted from social and economic history (patronage and consumption) and anthropology (material culture and behavioral studies) to form a multifaceted investigation of the objects themselves within their context as part of the history of visual culture.


For the greater part of the early modern period, textiles, especially pictorial tapestries, were the most valuable and valued items of interior decoration. Made of wool, silk, cotton, and linen, patterned flat weaves, velvets, brocades, and damasks were used to cover walls, floors, and furniture, while other fabric was made into clothing. Due to wear and their fragile nature, however, a disproportionately small number of historical textiles survive, which has led to their relative underrepresentation in art historical studies. Related to textiles, costume history examines the development of forms and techniques of dress and body ornament, which from the beginning, but especially since the eighteenth century, focused increasingly on female dress.

Furniture, made of a variety of woods according to regional availability and preference, forms another basic category, with tables, chairs, beds, case furniture (chests, cupboards, commodes, etc.), and frames representing the major types. Plain, carved, or painted, frequently inlaid (intarsia) or veneered (marquetry) in patterns or pictures with a variety of materials, or at times gilt and embellished with metal mounts, furniture could range from the mundane to the highly sophisticated in design and manufacture.

Ceramics, one of the most ancient crafts, also experienced an increase in variety, artistic attention, and refinement. Continuing a medieval tradition, the German Rhineland (Cologne, Raeren, Siegburg) and, later, Staffordshire in England produced prized stoneware, often with elaborate allegoricalsometimes even politicalrelief decoration, while southern Europe (Spain, Italy, and France) excelled in earthenware (faience, majolica) using painting with metallic oxide pigments on tin glazes for colorful pictorial scenes (istoriato) or shimmering metallic effects (lusterware). Seeking to emulate costly imported Asian porcelain, technical experimentations led to a number of imitations of itfor example, Medici porcelain from Florence (c. 15751587), a highly vitreous substance, or the blue and white earthenware of Delft, Holland, from the mid-seventeenth century onculminating in the "invention" of soft- and, later, hard-paste porcelain at the manufactories of Meissen, Germany, in 1709 and Vincennes-Sèvres, France (established 1738).

Major categories of metalwork are associated with cooking and the table, arms and armor, liturgical objects, lighting and heating, and jewelry. Depending on the rarity and qualities of the materials used, such works comprised utilitarian objects (bronze, brass, iron, steel, pewter) as well as more decorative ones (gold, silver, gilt silver, gilt bronze), intended mainly, but not exclusively, for show and status. Because of their high value, works in gold and silver received particular artistic attention, leading to an extraordinary sophistication of all the related techniques: the raising of sheet through embossing and chasing; the successful casting of detailed models, large and small, as well as natural objects; the development of hollow lost wax casting to achieve series of identical pieces; and enameling in translucent and opaque colors on flat (champlevé, basse taille, painted enamel) and round (en ronde bosse) surfaces.

The art of glass, retained in Europe since the Roman Empire, flourished anew from the early sixteenth century in particular in Venice, where clear crystal glass was rediscovered and fashioned into vessels, stemware, and mirrors (backed with an amalgam of mercury and tin). Centers in northern and central Europe (Nuremberg, Munich, Potsdam, Prague, Dresden, Switzerland) continued to produce stained glass and hard crystal suitable for etching and engraving (the latter a specialty in Holland) while geometric cut glass decoration was developed in England in the mid-eighteenth century and widely manufactured in Ireland (Cork, Waterford), Germany, and Bohemia.


Among the works preserved today, those made for the wealthy elite far outnumber those made for less economically strong consumers. This situation (putting aside the question of artistic value) has resulted in a less intensive investigation of objects made for the middle and lower classes, especially those from the beginning of the early modern period. In the sixteenth century, monarchs, court society, and the church provided most of the advanced patronage, while civic groups in the mercantile city-states and humanist circles played a somewhat lesser role. As patrons and consumers, the absolutist rulers of the seventeenth century were role models for the aristocracy and the growing patrician and merchant classes, who imitated them as best they could. A greater diffusion of wealth, erudition, and interest in the course of the eighteenth century led to a broadening of the consumer base, but high quality decorative arts were still the focus of the luxury trade. Although production was tailored in an increasingly commercial way toward demand and changing fashion, consumption was massed in the upper social classes, which set the tone for others.

With the growing self-awareness of artists during the Renaissance, the medieval guild system, which guaranteed the quality of products and protected makers but also circumscribed their activities, was gradually weakened in favor of greater freedom of involvement by individuals in different crafts. In the course of the sixteenth century, court artists were exempted from guild rules by their royal or princely patrons. The first court workshops in Florence under the Medici and in Prague under Rudolf II inspired the development of better structured royal manufactories in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the most famous were the Gobelins under Louis XIV and the porcelain factories of Meissen under August the Strong of Saxony and Sèvres under Louis XV. Concurrent with the rise of the mercantile middle class, independent entrepreneurs in the eighteenth century established the first commercial enterprises, for example the potteries of Josiah Wedgwood (17301795) in Staffordshire (established 1759), the furniture works of David Roentgen (17431807) near Coblenz (established 1750), or the luxury merchants (marchands merciers) of Paris, such as Lazare Duvaux (17091758) and Dominique Daguerre (fl. 17871795). The official abolition of the guilds and corporations in post-Revolutionary France in 1791 was a signal event; after the Napoleonic wars, European guilds never again regained their former power.


While certain regional preferences remained, the early modern period is generally characterized by increasing internationalism in terms of style and innovation. This development was promoted by two factors: traveling artists seeking their fortunes at different courts or mercantile centers, and the explosive rise of the print medium, which disseminated artistic ideas with precision and ease.

The humanist-influenced Renaissance brought a renewed and self-conscious review of the classical past. On objects it expressed itself in dense and colorful decoration with a multitude of figural and ornamental motifs derived from antiquity. Figures in classical drapery with well-defined anatomy, subject matter from mythology or Roman history, allegory, and personifications provided a rich canon to draw from. Other ornament was derived mainly from architecture: elaborate moldings, meanders, scrolling vines, acanthus leaves, rosettes, egg-and-dart and beaded bands, gadrooning, and grotesques, named after the excavations of grottos (most notably the Domus Aurea) in Rome in the early sixteenth century.

Architecture and sculpture also provided important impulses for baroque decorative arts: shapes of weightier proportions, massive S-scrolls, gilt ornament, and layered moldings; and energized, active, and emotionally expressive figures, animals, and mythological creatures. A particular development was the predilection for elaborate floral and vegetal ornament and patterns that can be found in almost all media of seventeenth-century decorative arts.

By the eighteenth century, France (and especially Paris) was the leading center for new taste and design. The essence of the rococo originated in French decorative arts, first apparent in the 1730s in silver and wood carvings (boiseries) and stucco decorations in interiors: swirling asymmetrical designs (opposed, irregular C-scrolls, shapes derived from rocks and shells, lines from water and waves), new naturalism (flowers, birds, and other realistic plants and animals), pastel colors, and fascination with the exotic Near and Far East. In a conscious backlash, the late 1750s brought back clearer, more rigid geometric principles derived from a new, more archaeologically based reception of antiquity. This neoclassicism evolved into more attenuated and richly ornamented forms in the 1770s and 1780s, and by the late 1810s resolved itself into an ever more rapid succession of revivals during the nineteenth century, from the neo-Gothic of the 1830s to the neo-Renaissance in the 1840s and 1850s, and the other historical styles that followed.


The number of anonymous masters in the decorative arts remains far greater than that of known artists, although recent research is uncovering more names of notable figures. Most textile weavers are unknown, while the designers, especially of tapestries, include many famous painters, such as Raphael (14831520), Bernard van Orley (14921542), and Peter Paul Rubens (15771640).

There are hardly any known furniture makers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, although Jacques Androuet du Cerceau the Elder (1510/15121585) and Hans Vredeman de Vries (15271606) must be mentioned for their influential prints of furniture designs. The first names and careers emerge in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: foremost among the group of Netherlandish and German émigrés working in France was André-Charles Boulle (16421732), who became famous for his delicate inlays of brass, tortoiseshell, and pewter (Boulle marquetry) and is credited with inventing the commode. The factories of Abraham Roentgen (17111793) and his son David produced furniture with the finest pictorial marquetry and ingenious mechanical features, pieces which they exported from Neuwied near Coblenz to all the major cities in Europe. Thomas Chippendale (17181779), whose name is synonymous with mahogany furniture carved in a late rococo or "Chinese" style, was the most influential maker, designer, and businessman for furniture in England. He published the first comprehensive book of designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director (1st edition, 1754), which cleverly addressed both his potential clients and fellow craftsmen.

In the field of ceramics, Johann Friedrich Böttger (16821719) stands out as the inventor of European hard-paste porcelain at Meissen, while Johann Joachim Kändler (17061775) was the factory's widely imitated modeler of animals and figures. In England, the great technical innovator and entrepreneur was Wedgwood, who revolutionized the manufacture, style, and marketing of his attractive pottery, especially his cameolike jasperware in muted opaque colors with applied delicate white reliefs.

It is remarkable how many of the great Renaissance sculptors began their careers as goldsmiths: the most famous is Benvenuto Cellini (15001571), whose renowned saltcellar, made for Francis I, perfectly combines sculpture and goldsmith's work, but the list also includes Filippo Brunelleschi (13771446), Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 13811455), Donatello (c. 13861466), and the painter Albrecht Dürer (14711528). Other innovative and noteworthy artists in gold and silver include Wenzel Jamnitzer (15081585, Nuremberg), Paulus van Vianen (c. 15701613, active in Utrecht, Munich, and Prague), and Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier (16951750, Turin and Paris).

The seventeenth century saw the evolution of the designer as a distinct artist, a development that was instrumental for the gradually emerging notion of a stylistically unified interior. Most often trained as an architect or a painter, the designer worked mainly as a draftsman and often subcontracted or supervised other specialist craftsmen. Among the earliest are Gian Lorenzo Bernini (15981680) and Giovanni Paolo Schor (16151674) in Rome, who in turn inspired Charles Lebrun (16191690), the first and most important director of the French Gobelins, which furnished Versailles and the other palaces of Louis XIV. The outstanding architect-designer of England was undoubtedly Robert Adam (17281792), who gave his name to a whole class of neoclassical buildings, interiors, and furnishings. Charles Percier (17641838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (17621853) were jointly responsible for the enduring late neoclassical style of furniture and interiors, often referred to as the empire.


The early modern period lacked the hierarchical division of fine and decorative arts, which was only established in the mid-nineteenth century. Textiles, furniture, and gold and silver, for example, were seen as entirely equal in artistic value and were generally more expensive than paintings or sculpture. The decorative arts played an important role in the often scripted life of the higher echelons of society that was imitated by others. Records of objects' placement and meticulous descriptions illustrate their multifaceted functions. They articulated a space, defined the actors in it, and participated in the rituals and actions of daily life. Understood in this manner, decorative arts can provide a particularly immediate and detailed window into the past.

See also Artisans ; Baroque ; Ceramics, Pottery, and Porcelain ; Jewelry ; Prints and Popular Imagery ; Rococo ; Textile Industry .


Campbell, Thomas P. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence. Exh. cat. New York, 2002.

Coutts, Howard. The Age of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design 15001830. New Haven and London, 2001.

Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven and London, 1978.

Hayward, Helena, ed. World Furniture: An Illustrated History from Earliest Times. London, 1965.

Hernmarck, Carl. The Art of the European Silversmith, 14301830. London, 1977.

Liefkes, J. Reino, ed. Glass. London, 1997.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 17151789. New Haven and London, 2002.

Thornton, Peter. Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland. New Haven and London, 1978.

Verlet, Pierre. French Furniture of the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel. Charlottesville, Va., and London 1991.

Versailles et les tables royales en Europe: XVIIème-XIXème siècles. Exh. cat. Paris, 1993.

Walker, Stefanie, and Frederick Hammond, eds. Life and the Arts in the Baroque Palaces of Rome: Ambiente Barocco. Exh. cat. New Haven and London, 1999.

Stefanie Walker

Decorative Arts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Decorative Arts



Motifs . Although the decorative arts of Islam are sometimes referred to as the “minor arts,” they in fact express much of the genius of Muslim art. The artist working for a Muslim patron had to conform to the Muslim standards for religious art if his production was to be displayed in a religious institution. Because of the prohibition on portraying people and animals, Islamic decoration consists basically of three major motifs: the geometrical, the vegetal, and the calligraphic. Of these, the geometric is by far the most common, with plant decorations or calligraphy usually serving as embellishments. Yet, occasionally plant decoration has been quite important, and calligraphy is usually present in some measure. Muslim geometric decoration tends to consist of complex webs of interlocking lines, which are more often straight than curved, producing an angular effect in the designs. Rounded lines are used especially with vegetal or calligraphic motifs.

Woodworking . Muslim artists developed woodworking as an art in itself and as a subsidiary to architectural decoration, in both cases producing masterpieces. The large number of carved ceilings, doors, windows, and screens that have survived for centuries in all Muslim countries attest to the dexterity of the Muslim woodcarvers. Boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl as well as highly ornate pieces of inlaid furniture have survived in Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and India. Masjids, madrasahs (colleges for religious studies), and other religious buildings were provided with ceilings, doors, and windows of carved wood. In addition, a masjid usually had a minbar (pulpit), a kursi (a raised seat for the Qur’an reader to sit on while reciting), and a chest to hold the Qur’an—all carved from wood. The woodworker usually carved his wood in different depths to create different impressions through light and shadow. The Muslim artists particularly excelled at making mashrabiyyahs, screens made of turned wood fitted together in geometric patterns. Several museums around the world, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, have excellent examples of woodwork from the earliest periods.

Metalworking and Jewelry . Museums worldwide also have examples of Muslim metalworking—including utilitarian ware such as ewers, basins, jugs, incense burners, lamps, and handwarmers. Metalworkers also made finials for the tops of masjid domes and minarets, which usually end in a crescent, as well as elaborate window grilles and locks. Weapons were often elaborately and expensively decorated with bronze and brass metalware inlaid with silver. Rulers could afford to have their swords embellished not only with silver but also with gold. Entry doors for various religious institutions, as well as some houses and palaces, consisted of a solid wooden core entirely covered with worked metal. There is a story that when the Sultan Hasan Masjid in Cairo was first built, the windows and the doors separating the large prayer hall from the mausoleum were covered with gold, and the day after they were installed they disappeared forever without a trace. One thing that seems to unite all human cultures from the dawn of history is a fascination with and production of jewelry for personal adornment. Since the medieval period, gold and silver bracelets, rings, earrings, and clasps for scarves and belts have survived throughout the Muslim world.


Born in Ma’arah, Syria (near Alepp), Abu al-‘Ala’ Ma‘arri (973-1058) became blind as a youth and relied in his writing on memory and sound. As the following examples demonstrate, his poetry and prose are known for his pessimistic and ascetic style, beliefs that were controversial from an Islamic standpoint.


Vain are your dreams of marvelous empire,

Vainly you sail among uncharted spaces,

Vainly seek harbor in this world ef faces

If it has been determined otherwise.


You that must travel with a weary load

Along this darkling, labyrinthine street—

Have men with torches at your head and feet

If you would pass the dangers of the road.


Myself did linger by the ragged beach,

Whereat wave after wave did rise and curl;

And as they fell, they fell—I saw them hurl

A message far more eloquent than speech:


We that with song our pilgrimage beguile,

With purple islands which a sunset bore,

We, sunk upon the desecrating shore,

May parley with oblivion awhile.


Alas! I took me servants: I was proud

Of prose and the neat, the cunning rhyme,

But all their inclination was the crime

Of scattering my treasure to the crowd.


There is a palace, and the ruined wall

Divides the sand, a very home of tears,

And where love whispered of a thousand years

The silken-footed caterpillars crawl.


And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek

Of wind is flying through the court of state:

“Here,” it proclaims, “there dwelt a potentate

Who could not hear the sobbing of the weak.”


How strange that we, perambulating dust,

Should be the vessels of eternal fire,

That such unfading passion of desire

Should be within our fading bodies thrust.

Source: The Diwan of Abu’-Ala, translated by Henry Baerlein (New York: Button, 1914), pp. 34, 35, 36, 44, 45, 48, 54.

Glass . One of the crafts at which Muslim artists excelled was glassmaking. Islamic collections in museums nearly always feature fine examples of vases, cups, and especially lamps from medieval times. Endowment deeds for the masjids and other religious institutions that were built during the Mamluk period (1250–1517) attest to the large number of glass lamps made to light the new buildings. The decorations on glass products resemble those used on metalware and ceramics and in book illumination. Inscriptions as well as figural and geometric motifs

decorate the Mamluk lamps. Colored enamel was used, and most of these lamps were also gilded. Surviving examples also bear the coats of arms of the Mamluks who commissioned them.

Ceramics . Under Muslim patronage, potters produced a wide array of ceramic products, including plates, bowls, cups, jugs, and lidded jars. They produced colored tiles to decorate the walls and floors of palaces, residences, and masjids. The quality of surviving ceramic products ranges from crude to refined. Centers of ceramic production were spread all over the Muslim world, with some places being most prominent at various times. Kashan in central Iran was so important that the Arabic word for ceramic tiles is kashani. Surviving ceramics were created with molds and hand building as well as on potters’ wheels. Muslim potters decorated their wares with slip, under-glaze, overglaze, and luster painting. Slip, also referred to as engobe, is diluted clay used to decorate a clay pot when it is leather hard, or “green,” before the first firing. Underglaze, slip, or diluted clay to which colored pigment has been added can be applied to a pot or tile when it is leather hard or after it has been fired. After a piece is fired, it is covered with a transparent glaze and refired, making it shiny and sealing it so that no water can seep through. Overglaze is applied after the first firing. Luster painting, decoration with metallic colors such as gold, is a demanding process. Decorative themes on Muslim ceramics include geometric patterns and floral motifs as well as figural compositions. Inscriptions were also used, sometimes incised into the pot, a technique known as sgraffito, or in other cases painted on. There is no doubt that the techniques and colors of Chinese ceramics had a profound influence on early Islamic pottery. The blue-and-white Chinese pottery seems to have been favored by Muslim potters, but they did not blindly copy Chinese pottery; rather, they combined Chinese indigenous motifs.

Textiles . Medieval sources document that Muslim rulers commissioned luxurious textiles from early on. Textiles were ordered not just for clothing but also for curtains, rugs, and furniture coverings used in the domestic and religious spheres. They were also used as gifts from the ruler, or sultan, to his amirs and other rulers and were given to visitors to the court whom the ruler wished to distinguish with robes of honor. Textiles were important because they identified the various classes within each society—through the quality and decoration of individuals’ garments and of their horse and camel saddles. Also, banners identifying various court officials were displayed at ceremonies. Surviving materials include cotton, linen, wool, and silk, all of which were originally brightly colored and highly decorated. Colors used included but were not confined to shades of blue, green, and gold. The decorative motifs of textiles surviving in museums vary and include bands of inscription, floral and geometric motifs, and animal and bird figures. The inscriptional band, known as a tiraz, usually mentions a sultan’s titles and wishes him glory, honor, or long life. The animals and birds include real animals and imaginary ones, such as griffins. Some stand peacefully in rows, and some are engaged in fights. Luxurious textiles were hand embroidered, while those for everyday use had block-printed designs. By the fourteenth century, Muslim textiles were being exported to Europe, as is documented in several

paintings by well-known artists. Production of textiles was spread all over the Muslim world, and the surviving examples point to the fact that there was an exchange of ideas and techniques with other countries, such as China and India. Because textiles are more fragile than wood, metal, glass, or ceramic, examples surviving from before 1500 are very rare.

Rugs . Rugs were produced all over the Muslim world with some centers, such as Tabriz and Shiraz in Iran, gaining prominence. Handwoven Persian carpets are among the best known in the world, and have been for centuries. They are renowned for their intricate designs and high-quality fibers, usually wool, and much care and work goes into making each one. Rug designs include many of the same motifs found in other decorative arts, such as illuminated manuscripts and woodworking. Since they would be placed on floors and walked on, however, carpets were to a great extent devoid of inscriptions. For the same reason, animal representation is more common on rugs than on other decorative items. Rug sizes varied from super large for the audience halls in palaces, to narrow and long prayer rugs for the rows of worshipers in masjids. Unlike rugs from other parts of the Muslim world, Mamluk rugs from Egypt, which are among the most beautiful, seem to have suddenly appeared fully developed toward the end of the fifteenth century. In almost all cases they were woven from wool dyed red, blue, and green. Their central pattern uses interlacing geometric motifs, similar to decorative motifs in illuminated manuscripts and woodworking, and their borders consist of medallions alternating with oval cartouches. Some scholars have explained the sudden development of Egyptian rug making as a result of political unrest in Iran. Egyptian rulers may have given refuge to Iranian artisans, who established a rug-weaving industry there.

Kiswah . Annually the Egyptian sultans provided the kiswah, the outer covering made especially for the Ka‘bah, the cubical stone building at the heart of the Great Mosque in Makkah. This black cloth covering, large enough to cover the Ka‘bah in its entirety, was carefully handwoven and embroidered with a large border of Qur’anic verses in gold thread near the top. When it was completed, a pilgrim caravan delivered it to Makkah. It was the duty of the amir of the pilgrimage to deliver the material. This practice was first documented in 1272, at the time of Sultan Baybars I, and continued well into the twentieth century. After the new kiswah arrived the old was then cut into pieces that were distributed to the pilgrims.

Qur’an Illumination . One area in which Muslim artists excelled was the illumination of sacred and secular books. The religious motivation that drove the artists to excellence in illuminating copies of the Qur’an spilled over into the secular domain. The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of twenty-three years. Every time the Prophet received a new revelation, he taught it to his followers, who memorized it, and he also had it recorded in a written form. That tradition has continued to the present day; Muslims memorize the Qur’an and pass it on orally from teacher to student, from generation to generation. At the same time, there is a standard Qur’an in Arabic that continues to be copied to the present. Early copies of the Qur’an were written on kidskin and parchment, materials too thick and bulky to accommodate the whole book in one volume. Therefore, the Qur’an was traditionally made in thirty volumes, one volume for each of its parts. When a ruler ordered the construction of a new religious foundation, he always provided at least one lavishly illuminated copy of the Qur’an, which was typically embellished with gold leaf and pigments made from powdered semiprecious stones. Because of the prohibition on figural representation, no people or animals are depicted in copies of the Qur’an. The most elaborate illumination in medieval Qur’ans usually appear on the opening two pages, which usually have colorful floral borders encircling them entirely. The rest of the pages of a volume of the Qur’an may be similarly, but less elaborately, illuminated, or they may be left undecorated. Other decorative elements in copies of the Qur’an include medallions that mark the division of each part of the Qur’an into halves and quarters, to make it easy for the reader to measure out passages for recitation and reading.

Secular Book Illumination . While illuminators of religious books other than the Qur’an observed the ban on figural representation, illuminations in works of science and literature sometimes include humans and animals, especially when such illustration was needed. For example, books on anatomy and veterinary and human medicine include elaborate figural representations, as do other works, even on astronomy, zoology, or literatures. Probably illuminators were permitted to break the rule because their illuminations were two-dimensional and in private copies of books that were not on public display.

Persian Miniatures . From illustrations in private copies of secular books developed the genre called “Persian miniatures,” which especially flourished in the eastern Muslim world. Whereas painters in medieval Europe were becoming increasingly concerned with techniques for the naturalistic presentation of figures, surroundings, landscapes, and especially perspective, in the Persian world the emphasis was more on hierarchy, complex design, and brilliance of color. Muslim artists did not pay attention to one-point perspective with the figures diminishing in size to produce the illusion of distance. Rather, the most important person in a painting is the largest, no matter where he or she is placed. Rugs are painted as if floating in space, allowing the viewer to admire their entire designs, instead of being presented in visually correct perspective, which would allow the viewer to see only a portion of the design. Figures are larger than their architectural surroundings, and buildings tend to appear stacked up, instead of diminishing in size to create the illusion of space. Rock formations and other features show the influence of Chinese painting.


Esin Atil, W. T. Chase, and Paul Jett, Islamic Metalwork (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1985).

John R. Hayes, ed., The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983).

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality (New York: State University of New York Press, 1987).

Venetia Porter, Islamic Tiles (New York: Interlink, 1995).

Rachel Ward, Islamic Metalwork (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993).

Decorative Arts

views updated Jun 08 2018

Decorative Arts

The term decorative arts refers to works of art that do not fall readily into the categories of painting, sculpture, and architecture. During the Renaissance, such objects were greatly valued because of the high level of skill and costly materials involved in making them. Items such as jewelry, arms and armor, tapestry, embroidery, woodwork, and ceramics were popular. Both wealthy and middle-class people collected decorative objects. But, for the most part, only the nobility and high-ranking church officials could afford expensive, high-quality items.

Gold Work. Elaborate objects made of gold served as a symbol of status in the Renaissance. Often decorated with precious stones, they reflected the wealth and prestige of their owners. Rulers displayed their impressive collections of gold items and presented some as gifts to important visitors. Members of the middle class also collected gold objects, such as drinking bowls, utensils, jewelry, and statuettes. However, they tended to purchase ready-made pieces, rather than works created specially for the owner.

Renaissance gold work served both secular* and sacred purposes. Secular items ranged from elaborate centerpieces to crowns, chains, pendants, and rings. Religious items included vessels to hold relics*, ceremonial objects, crosses, and statuettes. They were used in churches or displayed in private homes as a symbol of the owner's religious devotion.

The major centers of gold work were Florence, London, Nürnberg, and Venice. A number of famous artists, including Filippo Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Albrecht DÜrer, trained as goldsmiths. In addition, painters such as Hans Holbein the Younger and Raphael produced designs for gold objects.

Medals, Arms, and Armor. Portrait medals made of gold, silver, bronze, or lead were popular in the Renaissance, particularly in Italy. Members of the nobility distributed the medals to their friends and supporters. Inspired by ancient coins, the medals portrayed distinguished individuals, usually in profile and identified by an inscription. The Italian artist Antonio Pisanello (ca. 1395–1455) was one of the great masters of this form.

Metalworkers also produced arms and armor for individuals participating in tournaments or preparing for war. The best weapons and pieces of armor, finely crafted and decorated with gold and gems, became a symbol of status among the upper classes.

Textiles. Decorative textiles were highly prized in the Renaissance. Tapestry, one of the most splendid art forms of the period, required hundreds of hours of skilled labor to produce. Woven of expensive materials such as gold, silver, silk, and wool, tapestries often contained mythological, religious, or historical scenes. People hung them in palaces, churches, and even military tents to create elegant and impressive settings. Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, stored his extensive collection of tapestries in a specially designed fireproof hall staffed with guards and menders (those who repaired tapestries).

Embroidery, ornamental needlework, was another popular art form. Members of the upper classes wore clothing decorated with silk, gold, pearls, and gems. The ceremonial garments of high church officials often included richly embroidered panels. In addition, guilds* sometimes commissioned pieces of embroidery.

Woodwork and Enamel. The art of creating images with pieces of inlaid wood reached Europe in the mid-1300s from the Islamic world. Italian woodworkers produced benches, cabinets, and wall paneling featuring intricate inlaid pictures. In the early 1400s they began incorporating three-dimensional scenes in their designs, drawing on new theories of perspective*.

Works decorated with enamel were popular in France in the mid-1500s. Applied to a metal surface and then heated at extremely high temperatures, enamel produces a glossy, jewellike finish. The French used enamel for paintings as well as beautiful vases, candlesticks, and other household objects. Themes for the designs ranged from biblical and mythological stories to portraits and scenes from everyday life.

Ceramics. During the Renaissance, ceramics (objects made from clay) developed into a high art form. Artists were inspired by glazed pottery from China and Muslim regions of the Middle East and Spain. In Italy potters developed a technique known as majolica, which involved glazing a clay object, painting a design on it, coating it with a clear glaze, and firing it. A similar type of ceramics, known as faience, emerged in France.

Distinctive ceramic styles emerged in different parts of Europe. Spanish potters produced wing-handled vases and colored tiles. Italian artisans used a technique known as sgraffito, which features designs scratched into the surface to reveal a darker clay beneath. Luca della Robbia of Florence developed a method for producing colored, glazed clay pieces that were widely used in architectural decoration.

(See alsoArt; Art in France; Art in Italy; Art in the Netherlands; Art in Spain and Portugal; Coins and Medals; Luxury. )

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* relics

pieces of bone, possessions, or other items belonging to a saint or sacred person

see color plate 3, vol. 1

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface