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Saracenic - Comparative Analysis

( Originally Published 1921 )

A. Plans.—Mosques (Arabic, mesgid = a place for prostration) are the principal buildings, and the essential requirements were a large enclosure, rectangular on plan, with central fountain for ablution, as enjoined by the Koran (pp. 834 A, 841 D). This court occupies a similar position to the atrium of the Christian basilican church. Around this open space were roofed arcades or colonnades for protection from the sun ; the side towards Mecca, which formed the prayer chamber or mosque proper and was the most frequented part, was generally of extra depth. In the wall towards Mecca is the " mihrab " (niche), in which the " kibleh " indicates the direction of Mecca. The " mimbar " (pulpit) stands alongside (p. 833 B), while near at hand is the dikka," or tribune, from which the " unam " reads passages from the Koran and intones the prayers. Minarets accentuate certain portions of the plan, as, for example, the angles of the court or mosque proper. A second type is seen in the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo (p. 834 c), which is cruciform on plan, and the central portion is left open to the sky. The four arms are arched over with pointed vaults, and behind the " mihrab " is the founder's tomb crowned with a dome, a very usual arrangement. A third type was based on the Byzantine model, in which the mosque proper was an independent building, entered through a court, with a garden behind in which is the tomb of the founder.

The Khans (caravanserais or inns), often erected in great cities, as Cairo and Damascus, have an open court, round which are numerous chambers in two storeys used by merchants or travellers who came from all parts to dispose of their goods. In Constantinople there are 18o of these buildings.

Dwelling-houses are planned in the Eastern manner, with internal courts on which face the principal rooms. There is generally a main court, approached from the entrance, in which is a summer-house and fountain. The windows towards the street are small and strongly barred in the lower storeys ; while those to the upper storeys often overhang and are protected with wooden lattices (p. 848 C). Special regard is paid to seclusion in the planning of corridors for the isolation of the harem or women's apartments.

B. Walls.—Walls were constructed of local materials and covered with minute surface decoration in plaster, precious stones, and glazed tiles (p. 857). The Alhambra, Granada, has walls sheathed with glazed tiles to a height of 4 ft., above which there is a scheme of arabesques in plaster. In Cairo the ground-floor walls are frequently of stone, while those of the upper storeys are of wood or brick faced with plaster. External walls facing the street have few openings, so as to ensure the seclusion of the women. The horizontal banding of walls in alternate courses of stone and brick, or of stone of different colours, gives special character to external walls (p. 833 A). Minarets, from which the Moslems are called to prayer, are usually at the angles of mosques and tombs, but in Gujerat they are generally placed on the facades. They are usually square on plan, changing in the upper stages to polygonal and circular, each marked by projecting balconies with pierced balustrading, and supported on corbelled or stalactite brackets, as seen in the Mosque of Kait-Bey (p. 833 A) and at Agra (p. 855 J). The minaret gives a special character to these Saracenic mosques ; some have only one, but others have two, four, or even six, which make a very effective skyline both for the flat-roofed and the domed variety of mosque (pp. 84o, 847). Various forms of bold cresting often crown the walls and take the place of a cornice (pp. 833 A, 834 B, 842 A, 848 N). In Mogul architecture walls were divided into panels for inlay by perpendicular and horizontal enclosing lines (p. 842 A).

C. Openings.—Arcades were in great demand, not only on account of the southern climate, but as enclosures for the mosque courts, and also to satisfy the Saracenic requirements of numbers of arches, as symbolic of their faith. Four types of arches were employed : (a) The pointed arch, square in section and not moulded (p. 848 K). (b) The ogee or keel arch, used in Persia and India (pp. 848, 859). (c) The horseshoe arch, used in Spain and North Africa (pp. 833 C, 848 L, 859). (d) The multifoil or scalloped arch, an especially Spanish feature (pp. 833 C, 848 M, 855 E, 859). In arcades the arches rest on columns (pp. 833 C, 840 B) or piers (pp. 842 A, 847 B), and are frequently tied in at their springing by wooden beams or iron rods. The different forms of arches used in arcades are also found in door and window openings. Doors often had intricate surface ornament (p. 855 C), and were surrounded with elaborate carved work finished with stalactite heads (p. 848 H), and the arches sometimes had voussoirs of interlocking pattern, as in the Mosque of Kait-Bey, Cairo (pp. 833 B, 848 E). Monumental entrances, which were salient features in the Saracenic architecture of India, were achieved by combining a semicircular apse on plan for the actual doorways with a lofty four-centred arch of Tudor type, which enclosed an ornate semi-dome, all set in a massive rectangular frame of panelled piers, with decorated spandrels and crested summit (pp. 842 A, 847 A). Windows were usually small, to suit the southern climate in which Saracenic architecture is found (p. 855 A). They were often grouped together, and occasionally had their entire surface filled with elaborate tracery of marble and plaster in geometric patterns, while the small open spaces were filled with coloured glass (pp. 842 B, 848 C), and may be compared with Gothic tracery windows (p. 408). In Gujerat the lighting is often effected by clear-stories. Windows on the ground floor of houses are few and small, while the upper storey receives its character from those great overhanging, balcony-like windows, which are all enclosed in elaborate wooden lattices—known as " mushrabeyeh " work—of which there are examples in the Indian Museum, South Kensington.

D. Roofs.—Apart from the domical treatment which, whether in dull mud, coloured plaster, or gleaming marble, is a usual roofing in the East for hut, palace, and mosque, there is also the flat roof, plastered over externally and edged with solid or pierced parapets, while the timber planks of the interior were ablaze with coloured arabesques. The dome is a special feature in the principal mosques and tombs, and is of various forms, pointed, oval, and bulbous, but seldom spherical as in Byzantine architecture, and in Gujerat they are saucer-shaped. They are some-times of brick in horizontal courses, plastered inside and out, or some-times of stone (pp. 842, 847) also in horizontal courses, and with geometric patterns on the external surface, as in the Mosque of Kait-Bey (p. 833 A), which thus differs from Byzantine and Renaissance treatment. Windows sometimes occur round the base of the dome, which is, in the lower part (p. 840 A), occasionally ornamented with a fringe of sculpture (p. 847 A). Domes were nearly always placed over square compartments, as in. the Byzantine style, and the Saracenic architect had to face the same difficulty of joining the square below to the circle above, which he sometimes overcame by a series of small pointed niches, in rows one above the other. Each row projected in front of the one below, and thus by easy gradations the square was brought to the circular ring of the dome (pp. 834 D, 848). This is known as " stalactite " work, and forms the special Saracenic pendentive, a striking contrast with the Byzantine feature, which was always a plain curved surface (pp. 223 E, G, 544 C).

In India, where domical construction was carefully worked out, a peculiar form of angle or squinch arch was adopted, and stalactite pendentives appear to have been uncommon, their place being taken by inter-lacing arching and corbelling in horizontal courses (p. 841 J). Sometimes flat roofs of corbelled stone slabs were adapted by Saracenic architects in India, following the method which obtained in Jaina temples, while even pointed ribbed vaulting was not unknown (p. 834 F). The ceilings, as in the Alhambra, were frequently executed in richly modelled plaster, while "stalactite" ornamentation was introduced in an all-over pattern resembling in general effect the pendant vaulting of the Gothic period in Europe.

E. Columns.—Ready-made columns, from old Roman and Byzantine buildings in the locality, were often utilised for colonnades of mosques, and as they are of various designs they naturally produce an incongruous and haphazard effect, very much as in some Early Christian churches. The new columns designed by Saracenic architects were founded on old models varied with Saracenic ornament (p. 848 G). The columns in the Alhambra, Spain, are very slender, 12 diameters in height, surmounted by capitals (p. 848 A, B), with long necking and square upper portion carved with stalactite ornament (pp. 833 D, 834 F). Above this singular capital rises again a square post, like an elongated dosseret-block, carved with geometric and arabesque ornament, and against its sides abut the springings of the stilted arches carried on stalactite brackets resembling the stalactite capitals below (pp. 833 D, 848 F). In India, local Hindu influence produced a short, stunted pier quite Eastern in character, and also a variety of columns founded on Jaina models, with cubiform capitals and deep abacus-block (p. 847 B), while two-thirds of the way up the shaft start curious brackets (p. 855 a, L) or serpent-like struts which appear to support the outstanding beam of the roof (pp. 842 B, 855 B, F).

F. Mouldings.—Mouldings are subservient in the general design and their place is taken by elaborate surface decoration, although the stalactite ornament, used in rows one above the other, produces a moulded effect in itself, similar to a crowning Classic cornice (p. 833 A, 13, D). Mouldings follow on simple Byzantine models of plain cavetto and torus, and when employed as a frame to doorways and windows often take the form known as the "billet;" which was also used in Romanesque architecture (p. 415 A).

G. Ornament (pp. 84.8, 855).-Ornament in general was regulated as far as "motif " was concerned by the rules of the Koran, which prohibited the copying of natural objects. Saracenic ornament contrasts strangely in this respect with the elaborate sculpture of a Gothic facade, a Greek temple or a Roman triumphal arch, The Saracens, debarred from the use of natural forms, were led to evolve and perfect a scheme of decoration in which geometry was an important factor, so that they covered their buildings with geometric intertwining designs, treated with gorgeous colouring in red, white, blue, silver, and gold, thus producing a most brilliant fretted surface or carpet-like effect (p. 848 D). The term "arabesque " (Arabian-like) is applied generally to geometric designs, whether in plaster or painted tiles, where endless variety is obtained by joining together straight and curved lines forming geometric figures of all conceivable forms in which straight lines never form a right angle at their junction (p. 848 C). Among different types of surface ornament are:—(a) Mnemonic ornament, consisting of Arabic inscriptions from the Koran, worked into decorative panels and composed either of lettering in the older style, known as Kufic, or of the flowing character of later Italic lettering (p. 833 D). (b) Superposed ornament, made up of conventional designs in different planes, in which one scheme of design forms a background to the one over it, thus giving that intricacy of detail which is always associated with Saracenic ornament, while the whole is con-trolled by the face-plane of the surface in which the design is wrought (pp. 833 D, 839). (c) Stalactite ornament, primarily used to form the pendentives of domes (p. 834 D, F), was afterwards employed decoratively in door-heads (p. 848 H), capitals (pp. 833 D, 848 F), and on walls, as in the Mosque of Kait-Bey, Cairo (p. 833 A, B). The stalactite pendentive is comparatively rare in Spanish Saracenic. The Saracens also excel in surface decoration as applied to the accessories of architecture. The " mushrabeyehs " (Arabic, sharab = a draught), or elaborate lattice-work screens, formed of numerous turned pieces of wood, are characteristic, and are used to windows, projecting bay-windows, portions of facades in town houses, and for drinking-fountains. The " mihrab," or prayer niche, (p. 833 B) is the feature upon which the greatest elaboration of ornament is concentrated, especially in the use of costly marbles and mosaics, while the covering semi-dome is frequently enriched with interlocking arch voussoirs of different coloured marbles. The " mimbars " too, such as that in the Mosque of Kait-Bey (p. 833 B), are richly carved with geometrical patterns and stalactite ornament, and are also inlaid with ebony and ivory.

A general review of Saracenic ornament, which is so outstanding a feature of the architecture, reveals the greatest variety of treatment in form, colour, and material, together with the adoption and combination of features from other styles that were not expressly excluded by the regulations of the Koran. Even this limitation gave rise to new and ingenious decorative schemes, and the craftsman who added the typically Saracenic detail had an almost limitless scope in the combination and permutation of lines and curves, which crossed and recrossed and were laid one over the other, till nothing of the underlying framework was recognisable. There was a restlessness, too, in their decorative style, a striving after excess which is in contrast to the Greek spirit which recognised perfection in simplicity and was content to let a fine line tell its own tale. Thus we find everywhere intricacy instead of simplicity : there are brackets of such tortured forms as to be constructively useless and of such elaborate decoration as to be grotesque ; there are crestings of pierced and carved marble which challenge the delicacy of lace-work (p. 848 N), and surface panels are not only inlaid with the coloured marbles of the sculptor, but are also often encrusted with the precious stones of the jeweller ; while arabesque and geometric patterns of labyrinthine design flow in many colours from surface to surface (pp. 833 C, 842 A). All this is often emphasised by the peculiarly Saracenic stalactite ornament which, whatever its real origin, our fancy might conceive to be a constant repetition of the mihrab or holy niche to emphasise the sanctity of the building ; while mottoes from the Koran are scattered over the decorative scheme to remind the faithful of the claims of their religion (p. 833 D), much as sculptured figures of saints and Bible incidents were used by Gothic artists to bring before the worshippers the ideals of Christianity.

The Saracenic galleries at the Indian Museum, South Kensington, give an excellent idea of the ornamental features and colour schemes of the style, which is distracting in complexity of decoration rather than reposeful in simplicity of construction.

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