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Of Serpents and Dragons in Islamic Art

An Iconographical Study.

Series: Bibliotheca Iranica: Islamic Art & Architecture Series 13
Availability: In stock
Published: 2011
Page #: xx + 238
Size: 6 x 9
ISBN: 1-56859-264-7, ISBN 13: 978-1568592640
plates, bibliography, index, notes

 
$59.00

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Quick Overview

In the medieval Muslim world, the dragon was the most frequently represented fabulous beast. This applied across styles and media and in both sacred and secular contexts. Yet its prominence is marked by seemingly contradictory representations. Like Plato’s "Pharmakon," the dragon was imbued with antithetical meanings: as it stood for both the darkness of the eclipse and the light of God, the satanic and the divine, the transcendent and the earthly. The "yin" and the "yang" of Islam were embodied in the dragon, whose fire was the hell of destruction and also the blessed light of the divine. The dragon thus represented one of those exceptional and mysterious symbols that explained the more baffling phenomena such as creation, chaos and order, furthermore signifying amalgamations of dichotomous forces whose balance made life and the understanding of life possible.

Through rigorous and extensive research of historical, literary and exegetical sources, Daneshvari explores the dual symbolism of this intriguing central motif of Islamic iconography. Research to date has focused on the dark side of this mythical creature, as an eclipse monster, but here, "Of Serpents and Dragons in Islamic Art," seeks to re-balance this. Representations of dragons on mosques and other holy structures, gateways to cities, the thrones of rulers, the wings of angels and candleholders are perplexing if the dragon is viewed only as a threatening or demonic icon. Daneshvari solves this puzzle by arguing that the dragon’s primary meaning is as a producer and a symbol of light and protection.

He further investigates the astrocosmological significance of dragon's iconography, its diverse hybrid appearances and the double-edged metaphor of opium that represented both the dragon and the only cure to its fiery bite. Identifying the dragon as signifier of the navel of the Earth, or the place of God’s creation, it also resolves one of its most mystifying representations – flanking the enthroned ruler. This book is a ground-breaking and original contribution and essential reading for scholars and researchers of Islamic and Art History.

author

Abbas Daneshvari

Professor Abbas Daneshvari is the former Chair of the Department of Art and a Professor of Art History at California State University, Los Angeles. His publications cover various aspects of Islamic art's iconography as attested by his books "Animal Symbolism in Warqa wa Gulshah" (Oxford University Press), "Medieval Tomb Towers of Iran" (Mazda Publishers), "Of Serpents and Dragons in Islamic Art: An Iconographical Study" (Mazda Publishers) and many articles on the iconography of Islamic art. Professor Daneshvari is the editor of "Essays in Islamic Art and Architecture in Honor of Katharina Otto Dorn" (Undena Publications) and the editor of volumes 17 and 18 of Arthur Upham Pope's magnum opus, "A Survey of Persian Art" (Mazda Publishers). He is also the author of a forthcoming book on contemporary Iranian art.

Preface.
List of Illustrations.
A Note on the Sources.

Chapter One: Background Information.

Chapter Two: Names, Types and Attributes.

Chapter Three:The Intrepid Hero.

Chapter Four: Astrocosmological Symbolism of the Dragon.

Chapter Five: The Dragon at the Navel of the Earth.

Chapter Six: Hybrid Representations of Dragons and Serpents.

Chapter Seven: Dragons, Opium and "The Kitab al-Diryaq."

Chapter Eight: Dragons in the Cult of the Saints.

Bibliography.

Index.

7/20/2016

 
Source: MESA I R o M E S I48 1& 2 I 201

ABBAS DANESHVARI .Of Serpents and Dragons in Islamic Art: An Iconogra phic Study. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2011. 260 pages, figures and plates, footnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $59.00 ISBN 1-5685-9264-0
Although 2011 was not the official Year of the Dragon, it was an auspicious one for those interested in the abundant imagery of dragons and other fabulous beasts in Islamic art. In addition to the study under review, the year brought forth Sara Kuehn's The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art (Brill), and Peris Berlekamp's Wonder, Image and Cosmos in M edieval Islam (Yale University Press). For two decades, Abbas Daneshvari has been unraveling the iconographic significance in Islamic art of rabbits, peacocks, scorpions, sphinxes, cups, branches, birds, fish, and more. Here, he tackles dragons in a book-length study, which has been-as the author acknowledges-long in the making (ix)
The book opens with "A Note on the Sources," an erudite overview of Persian and Arabic literature related to serpent and dragon imagery. The chapter titled "Background Information" actually provides a critical review of selected secondary studies on dragon and serpent iconography, while the next chapter offers a succinct but thorough taxonomic overview of the various types of serpentine creatures found in Islamic imagery, as well as a genealogy of their pre-Islamic ancestries. Chapter 3, "The Intrepid Hero," deals briefly with th
iconography of dragon combat vignettes. It is in the following chapter, entitled "The Astrocosmological Symbolism of the Dragon, "that Daneshvari launches the main thrust of his argument. He illuminates the dual nature of the dragon and refutes the chain of early scholarship that overplays its destructive, ecliptic, and evil associations. Furthermore, he asserts that the dragon's role as producer of light and regeneration was more important than its dark side. His assertions are amply supported with examples of poetic verse that evoke positive associations of dragons and serpents. Daneshvari also explores the contingency of such imagery on its setting, finding the "dragon of light" represented on a range of objects such as candlesticks, luster-painted ceramic bowls , and containers of wine-"liquid sun" (77); the protective dragon depicted over archways; and dragons of both light and protection on door­ knockers, standards, and swords
The next chapter further emphasizes the positive nature of the serpent­ dragon, with explication of the beast's apotropaic associations in specific settings. Starting with a group of scenes depicting enthroned rulers flanked by dragon images, Daneshvari weaves together the king's throne and God's throne, the serpent surrounding that throne, the serpentine form of al-Sakina at the Kacba, and representations of the ouroboros dragon. In "Hybrid Representations of Dragons and Serpents," he focuses on the motifs of serpentine dragons' heads that sprout from the roots of trees, the splayed wings of double-headed eagles, the tails of lions, and both the wings and tails of harpies and sphinxes. The short chapter that follows explores the use of confronted and double-headed dragons to represent the duality in the medicinal concept of "the dragon as the cure for the dragon's bite" (192). Finally, in "Dragons in the Cult of the Saints;' the author discusses the dragon-as-treasure-guardian motif in Sufi analogies between material and spiritual wealth
Daneshvari's examples of Islamic period dragons are drawn from Iran, Central Asia, the Jazira, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt and range in date from the tenth to the nineteenth centuries. Throughout, Daneshvari deftly reaches into pre­ Islamic visual and literary traditions to trace iconographic histories. While this long view is impressive in scope and refreshing given the field's increasing periodization, it can result in problematic generalities: "These remind us of the seamless continuity of ideas and images across three thousand years" (138). Insistence on continuity, in turn, sometimes leads the author to reject alternative readings or simultaneous bivalence in interpretation (e.g., 178-180). A few typographical errors have escaped Mazda's editorial process; in some places closer editing would have clarified meaning (e.g., 156 top, 180 bottom), and the unusual format of the bibliography detracts from its usefulness. But these are minor points
Daneshvari's interpretations of Islamic iconography have long been influential. The application of his interpretive methods to the important theme of dragon imagery offers rich perceptions and persuasive alternatives to early scholarship on the subject and has already begun to make a mark in recent scholarship after its presentation in a 2004 lecture series, making the publication of this study all the more relevant
Ellen Kenne
The American University in Cairo
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