Saudi Arabian Islamic Art

Illuminated page depicting pilgrims at Mecca.
... Images

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, with the world's two holiest Muslim sites as well as its two largest mosques. The rich art of the Islamic world, from the design of mosques to calligraphy and decorative objects, has its roots in the history and culture of Saudi Arabia's nomadic tribes. Contemporary artists are now carrying this tradition into galleries and international exhibitions.

1 Calligraphy

This mosque mosaic is decorated with kufic script from the Qur'an.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

In Islamic cultures, book arts such as calligraphy and illumination are the greatest and most respected form of visual art. Calligraphy grew out of the desire to document Arabic tribes' love of poetry and oral tradition, as well as Islam's religious tenets, on the page. Used extensively in editions of Islam's holy book, the Qur'an, calligraphic writing dedicated to holy scripture is generally known as kufic script and has multiple styles. Calligraphic inscriptions are found not only in manuscripts, but in mosques and on decorative objects, serving as inspirations for meditation and prayer. Decorative script is also used in non-religious text that appears on more practical objects like plates or jewelry.

2 Architecture

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina is a landmark with its tall minarets.
... Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The first mosques were built in Saudi Arabia during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the prototypes of mosques around the world. Muhammad's own house in Medina served as the model for the first mosques, with an arcaded courtyard where his followers gathered to hear prayers. Later, Muhammad built a mosque adjacent to his home, now called the Prophet's Mosque and the second-holiest site in Islam, after Al-Haram in Mecca. The Prophet's Mosque is famous for its green dome, which contains the Prophet Muhammad's tomb. As mosques were built across Saudi Arabia, their design was based on the local climate and geography -- for example, central Saudi Arabia favored adobe buildings, while those in eastern Saudi Arabia used the naturally occurring red stone, and those along the Red Sea were made from coral.

3 Textiles and Decorative Motifs

Persian carpet patterns are based on traditional arabesques.
... Hemera Technologies/ Images

Since before the time of Muhammad to the present day, Saudi Arabia has had a large nomadic population, and many of the country's art objects -- carpets, jewelry, ceramics and glass -- are portable. These objects are painstakingly decorated with traditional motifs of calligraphy, flowers and vines, usually called arabesques, as well as geometric ornamentation. Carpets used to kneel on during daily prayers, or salah, are traditionally embellished with kufic script and complex geometric and arabesque patterns said to reflect the gardens of Paradise.

4 Contemporary Saudi Arabian Art

Thanks to wealth and political stability, Saudi Arabia's contemporary art scene is vibrant and flourishing internationally, especially in shows such as Soft Power and Edge of Arabia. Many contemporary artists incorporate traditional Islamic art motifs into their work, along with modern mediums and sensibility. Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali, for instance, paints women whose bodies are covered in geometric patterns. Saudi Arabia's interest in the arts promises that more young artists will emerge from the country in the future, despite the possibility of state censorship.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.