And Diverse Are their Hues

Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair: Colour in Islamic Art and Culture

Monday, 10 October 2011

And Diverse are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture (published last week by Yale University Press) is an exciting new book that investigates the role of color in Islamic art, from medieval to modern times. Here the authors Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair discuss the inspiration behind this ambitious project, and how it came to be so vividly realised.



Colour in Islamic Art and Culture

Article by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair

Everyone remarks about how colorful Islamic art is. In addition to the Black Stone in Mecca, the Blue Mosque in Tabriz, the White Mosque in Ramla, the Green Mosque in Bursa, and the Red Fort in Agra, one need only call to mind Persian miniatures, Oriental carpets, or lustered ceramics. No one, however, seems to think or write much about the subject.

For many years, Jonathan [Bloom] had worked on a famous Koran manuscript written in gold on a deep blue parchment ground. But he had never paid much attention to how the parchment was made blue or how the gold writing was done. Sheila [Blair] wrote an article tracing the history of the colored papers used in Islamic manuscripts, but she never investigated the practical problems of coloring the paper. But Paul Hill’s book, Color in Venetian Architecture, published by Yale University Press in 1999, showed us how exciting a topic color could be.

So we decided to tackle the subject in our role as conveners of the Hamad bin Khalifa International Symposium on Islamic Art, held biennially and funded by the Qatar Foundation through Virginia Commonwealth University’s satellite campus in Qatar. In these symposia, we try to address large but unanswered questions and make the most up-to-date scholarship available to a wide audience. All too often, scholars write only for other scholars, and as part of our mission we want to make the broader public aware of the kinds of exciting research that we and our colleagues do. Our first symposium, held in Doha in October 2007, had addressed the topic of water in Islamic art and culture and was published in 2009 by YUP as Rivers of Paradise.
Page spread from 'And Diverse are Their Hues'

Our third symposium, to take place in October of this year again in Doha, will address the role of the object in Islamic art. It will focus on the superb collection assembled by the Museum of Islamic Art there in a stunning building designed by I. M. Pei. This book, And Diverse are Their Hues, is the product of our second symposium that was held in Cordoba, Spain in October 2009.

We've been publishing books with YUP since 1994, when our book, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, appeared in their Pelican History of Art series. We had originally signed a contract to write the book with Penguin Books, and we expected it to be like the rest of the volumes in the series, a small paperback with 400 black-and-white illustrations and a color picture on the cover. In 1992, however, after Yale acquired the series, John Nicoll, who directed the press’s office in London, decided to revamp it in a larger format with color illustrations integrated into the text. Ours was one of the first to be published in the new format. We offered to contribute our own color photographs of architecture, allowing the press to acquire additional color photographs of objects from museums and private collections. The end result was a book that looked like it was entirely in color. The plan paid off, and the book was a critical and commercial success, quickly selling out its first printing. Only one cantankerous reviewer complained that the color was “kaleidoscopic” and wanted to revert to the good old days of black and white. Fifteen years later, we were very excited when Yale agreed to publish the series of volumes generated from our symposia.

In the intervening decades, new technologies of photography and printing have filled art books, particularly those published by Yale, with glorious color illustrations. We continue to be very fortunate to work with Gillian Malpass as editor and Sarah Faulks as designer in an extraordinarily cooperative relationship. They’ve made sure that this volume is even more beautiful than we imagined it would be.
Islamic Carpets: Page Spreads from 'And Diverse are Their Hues'

The twelve contributors to this volume, who come from backgrounds ranging from art history to conservation, approached the subject of color in Islamic art and architecture from very different perspectives, ranging from the philosophical to the optical and beyond. Our introduction to the book volume attempts to frame the question of color in Islamic art and provide context for the other, sometimes contradictory, essays. Along the way, we discovered some of surprising things. We deduced, for example, that before the age of color photography and color printing, art historians spent a great deal of time focusing on form, because color could only be seen firsthand. There’s little need any more to write as one once did about the man in the upper left wearing a green cloak and the girl in the lower right wearing a red dress, as readers can see it all for themselves.

And Diverse Are Their HuesWe already knew that many of the color words in English, such as orange or azure, come from Arabic and Persian, but we learned that all languages begin with the opposition of light and dark (or black and white) and then add colors in a prescribed order. Red is always the third color, followed by green or yellow and then yellow or green. The Arabic of the early seventh century, as represented in the Koran, uses only five colors. Blue, which is common in the Islamic lands from the turquoise domes of Iran to the blue doors of North Africa, is mentioned there only once and that in a negative way.

In short, the subject of color deserves lots more attention and we hope that And Diverse are Their Hues will inspire readers to pursue it further.

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Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair share the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair of Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Norma Jean Calderwood University Professorship in Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College. And Diverse are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture is available now from Yale University Press. Click here to see other books by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila Blair. More Books on Islamic Art from Yale