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Islam and Christianity: Art that Defines Religion

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Islam and Christianity are two religions that both offer a unique view of their respective religions, history, and cultural similarities and differences by the manner in which the artists depicted their respective subjects. The two artworks, the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (Byzantine) and the Kairouan are the two artworks I’ve chosen to compare and contrast.

The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is an art piece from Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey dated back to AD 1350-1400. It is a very religious piece of, used mainly for religious ceremonies. It’s been moved around during its time of use. It is made from Tempera and gold leaf on a wooden panel

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During this specific historical period, religious oppression was used as a weapon by those in power and this can be seen in the art of this time. An example of this is when the Christian Byzantine Empire faced being destroyed by the Ottoman Turks around the 1400s. It turned to the past and founded an event that told its uniquely ordained purpose, and turned it into a national legend. The Byzantines promoted this myth in the most public way possible. They created a new traditional religious day and they commissioned a religious piece to mark that day. The Byzantine Empire had never been more important than to seek a higher way to find help. The beneficiary to the Roman Empire in this time was the Orthodox Christianity, and for centuries the giant of the Middle East, the empire itself had shrunk from its former greatness. By 1370 it was no more than a minor state that extended just barely beyond the walls of Constantinople or now known as modern Istanbul. All its provinces had been lost, most of them conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks who now threatened the city and even the survival of Orthodox Christianity itself seemed to be in question. [1]

There was very little hope of military help from further away. There were two attempts from western Europe to send in reinforcements that had been defeated in the Balkans. On more than several occasions, the emperor himself traveled from Constantinople to the kingdothe West to plead for money and soldiers, but he did not get that. By 1370 it was obvious that there was going to be no salvation. Only God could help in an event like this. These were the bleak times in which the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was painted. It shows that the world of the Byzantine Empire not was, but needed to be if God was going to protect them.

The paintings of these icons was considered a spiritual ritual rather than seen as artistic. This is something that of icons that American visual artist Bill Viola, who quotes from a medieval text:

‘Never forget the joy of spreading icons in the world, the joy of the work of icon painting, the joy of giving the Saint the possibility to shine through his icon, the joy of being in union with a Saint whose face you are painting.’ [2]

What exactly is the Triumph of Orthodoxy? About 700 years ago the significance of holy icons in the Orthodox worship and the absolute dedication which they are described in, comes as an amazement to discover that for 150 years they were not only completely forbidden in Orthodox churches but actively searched for and destroyed. Around the year 700, the Byzantine Empire nearly stopped to the armies of a new faith known as Islam. Similarly to Christianity, Islam forbade the use of religious icons and destryoed them. The use of images in the church seemed to raise a huge question, why were icon’s images being made and used? Iconoclasm just swept across the Orthodox Church in the year 700. The debates went on for over a century. But throughout that, regular people remained firmly attached to their holy icons, and eventually, the worship of icons was reinstated by Theodora in 843. This is the famous event known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which re-established Orthodox faith and the focus of Byzantine devotion.

This painting showcases the empress, Theodora and the great restoration of 843 [3]. her figure is standing beside the image of the Virgin and Child, and with her is her child, the boy Emperor Michael. Both of them are wearing crowns. Below in the second panel, are eleven saints and martyrs crowded together. Some of them are holding tiny pictures of icons in their hands. A viewer around the 1400s would have known that all these saints had suffered greatly because of their icons being destroyed. Now being able to use their holy icons, they are in a happier state, renewed. Their names are written in red paint. The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy showcases a whole entire society revisiting its past through art, begging God to help. It is a powerful and emotional way to ask for help to a higher power.

In the seventh century, North Africa was not the best of places to settle in and make a new city in. It required constant ongoing battles between Byzantines, convincing Berbers, and the people of North Africa, to learn to accept the Muslim domination, persuading Middle Eastern merchants to move to North Africa. [4] In the year 670, destroying general Sidi Okba created a Friday Mosque in what was becoming Kairouan. A Friday Mosque is used for public prayers on the Muslim holy day, Friday. The mosque was a very important addition, that Kairouan would become a diverse capital under Muslim influence. The Great Mosque in Kairouan began at the site of the first Muslim discussion in the Maghreb, which was built by ‘Uqba ibn Nafi in 50 (670). Renovations were made by Hasan ibn Nu’man. Developments for the mosque were done under the governor named Bichr ibn Safwan. Another renovation was done under Yazid ibn Hatim in the year 155. Finally, the mosque was totally rebuilt by the Aghlabid prince Ziyadat. It was assumed its current dimensions as of today. For a long time, the Great Mosque of Kairouan has been seen as a journey to destination for North Africans not able to make the long trip to Mecca. According to very religious belief, seven trips to Kairouan was worth one hajj to Mecca. It’s a way to lead the spirit to a new path in life and see everything in a new light.

In conclusion, even though these two religions are very different, where one didn’t want any art to represent an icon. The other created art to represent their icons to save their beliefs and their lives

  • Richard Krautheimer and Ćurčić Slobodan, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992)
  • Markus, R. (1967). The Imperial Administration and the Church in Byzantine Africa. Church History, 36(1), pp.18-23.
  • Markus, R. (1967). The Imperial Administration and the Church in Byzantine Africa. Church History, 36(1), pp.18-23.
  • Figure 2f from: Irimia R, Gottschling M (2016) Taxonomic Revision of Rochefortia Sw. (Ehretiaceae, Boraginales). Biodiversity Data Journal 4: e7720. Https://Doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.4.e7720,’ n.d. https://doi.org/10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

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