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"Not quite a year ago, further to a post here about the grotesque in art, Marly asked if I might also write something similar about the arabesque. This idea rested on a cold back-burner until a couple of weeks ago, when I acquired a booklet entitled Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750 by Peter Ward-Jackson, in which are reprinted some articles that had first been published in a 1967 issue of The Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin. One of these articles was specifically concerned with the arabesque, and is my source for the images (and for most of the information) below." --Il Giornale Nuovo, June 2007

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Arabesques are an elaborate design of intertwined floral drawings or complex geometrical patterns. This ornamental design is manly used in Islamic art and architecture. It can also refer to an ornate composition, especially for the piano or a dance position in which the dancer stands on one leg, with the other raised backwards, and the arms outstretched.



From French arabesque, from Italian arabesco, from arabo (“Arab”).

Arabesque (Islamic art)

Arabesque (Islamic art)

The arabesques and geometric patterns of Islamic art are often said to arise from the Islamic view of the world. The depiction of animals and people is generally discouraged, which explains the preference for merely geometric patterns.

There are two modes to arabesque art. The first recalls the principles that govern the order of the world. These principles include the bare basics of what makes objects structurally sound and, by extension, beautiful (i.e. the angle and the fixed/static shapes that it creates—esp. the truss). In the first mode, each repeating geometric form has a built-in symbolism ascribed to it. For example, the square, with its four equilateral sides, is symbolic of the equally important elements of nature: earth, air, fire and water. Without any one of the four, the physical world, represented by a circle that inscribes the square, would collapse upon itself and cease to exist. The second mode is based upon the flowing nature of plant forms. This mode recalls the feminine nature of life giving. In addition, upon inspection of the many examples of Arabesque art, some would argue that there is in fact a third mode, the mode of Arabic calligraphy.

Arabesque (European art)

Arabesque (European art)

The Arabesque used as a term in European art, including Byzantine art, is, on one definition, a decorative motif comprising a flowing and voluted formalistic acanthus composition.

Metaphorical usage

Example (meaning: sprawling, complex and convoluted):

"The Hollywood Hallucination introduces Parker Tyler’s critical arabesques, elaborated in his later books, concerning Mae West, Mickey Mouse, the Good Villain and the Bad Hero"

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque

There has been some debate over the meaning of Poe's terms "Grotesque" and "Arabesque" in his short story collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Both terms refer to a type of art used to decorate walls. It has been theorized that the "grotesque" stories are those where the character becomes a caricature or satire, as in "The Man That Was Used Up." The "arabesque" stories focus on a single aspect of a character, often psychological, such as "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Further reading

  • La Fleur de la science de pourtraicture et patrons de broderie: Façon arabicque et ytalique (Paris, Jaques Niverd, 1530) by Francesco Pellegrini
  • Von Arabesken, a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on arabesques.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Arabesque" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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