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Arabesque (European art)

Examples of the basic form of the arabesque, taken from existing monuments.[1] Note the common core element of the heart shaped confronted volutes & stem, highlighted in green.
Key: *E: Ara Pacis, sculpture, c. 27 AD *B: Palazzo Mattei, Rome, stucco relief, 2nd century *D: Lateran, Rome, SS. Rufinus & Secundus, mosaic, 4th century *A: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, mosaic, 691-2 *C: San Clemente, Rome, mosaic, c. 1200
The “Tellus Panel” from the Ara Pacis, Rome, c. 27 AD. Possibly the earliest surviving depiction of the arabesque, and a clear demonstration of the misnomer and anachronism inherent in the term, coined in 1546 Italy

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. It is generally simpler than the Arabesque in Islamic art, and does not involve elements that cross over each other.

Basic form

The basic form of the arabesque is as illustrated above. The core element is a heart shape formed from 2 confronted volutes on stems, shown highlighted in green in the illustration. To this core are added any number of further volutes, above, below or to the sides. It is thus a motif which can be infinitely expanded to cover a surface of any size, and indeed this function of decorating plain surfaces, as a form of diaper, is its chief use. From the illustration it is clear that the form present on the Ara Pacis (drawing E) erected in Imperial Rome during the time of Augustus, that is to say during the 1st quarter of the 1st century AD, is unchanged in substance when compared with the form in the apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome dated c. 1200 (drawing C). The basic form appears unaltered during the intervening centuries, and indeed continued in use through the Renaissance and continues in use in the present day.


”S”-shaped arabesque

The heart-shaped core element is on occasion omitted, the arabesque taking the form of an “S” with voluted ends, generally seen in confronted pairs, as in the mosaics of the Treasury of the Great Mosque of Damascus, Byzantine work of the 7th century.

”U” shaped arabesque

This form is also encountered at the Treasury in Damascus, having a pair of volutes turned inwards towards the bowl. The form is generally used alone and does not sprout further volutes as generally does the core heart-shaped form.


File:Apsis mosaic San Clemente.jpg
San Clemente, Rome, Byzantine apse mosaic c. 1200, depicting arabesques

An understanding of the etymology of the word is useful in deciphering the confusions surrounding its usage. The word arabesque is French, borrowed by English, the French term itself being derived from the Italian word arabesco, which first appeared in Italian literature in the first half of the 16th century. The book 'Opera nuova che insegna a le donne a cuscire … laqual e intitolata Esempio di raccammi (A New Work that Teaches Women how to Sew … Entitled "Samples of Embroidery"), published in Venice in 1530, includes 'groppi moreschi e rabeschi'- Moorish knots and arabesques.[2] The Italian word uses the Latin derived “inceptive” or “inchoative” word ending “-esco” signifying a beginning, thus ferveo, to boil and fervesco to begin to boil. The creation of this word in inceptive form in cinquecento Italy strongly suggests that the form was then believed, quite wrongly as will be seen, to have had its beginning in “Arabia”, which term was then probably used to signify any near-oriental land, including those of the Byzantine Empire.

Historical use

Italy & France

The term was first used in Europe in Italy, where rabeschi was used in the cinquecento as a term for ornaments featuring acanthus decoration.[3] From there it spread to France, where "arabesque" was used from the late 16th century.[4]


In England the term dates from 1549 at the latest as an inventory dated that year of King Henry VIII lists a cup with "couer of siluer and guilt enbossed with Rebeske worke".[5] A later example is recorded in the privy purse documents of Queen Elizabeth I when William Herne or Heron, Serjeant Painter from 1572 to 1580, was paid for painting the Queen's barge with "rebeske work".[6] In 1611 Cotgrove defined “Arabesque” as: “Rebeske worke; a small and curious flourishing”[7] The use of "arabesque" as a noun first appears in English, in relation to painting, in William Beckford's novel Vathek in 1786.[8]


The Queen's Boudoir, Fontainebleau, 1786. A neo-classical recreation of a grotto-esque composition containing arabesque voluted forms

The etymology shows that in 1546 the form was believed to be a phenomenon of Islamic art. The reason why the renaissance Italians did not recognise the true origin of the form as Imperial Roman is likely to be that the Imperial 1st-century AD monuments now available to view, such as the Ara Pacis, the Domus Aurea and the Baths of Titus, were then still buried under the rubble of ancient Rome following the various razings of that city from shortly after Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, formerly called Byzantium, c. 330 AD. The Italians living in Rome in the early 1500s had no idea that such monuments existed beneath their feet, which is why such great excitement arose on the chance discovery of the buried ruins, thought at first to be subterranean caves, grotte in Italian, with walls covered in extravagant and fantastical artistic compositions, then immediately termed grotteschi, signifying “having beginning in caves”.

Verbal usage

Literary usage

The term arabesque is rarely used in English literature due to the confusion which has often existed as to its precise significance. In France however the term is still well understood in popular culture and has been used in literature in the following senses: multiplier les arabesques dans sa signature (i.e. make a signature more voluted, i.e. as in round hand script)... La fumee decrivait dans le ciel d'elegantes arabesques (Smoke swirls). The French dictionary Larousse confidently defines arabesque as synonymous with “volute”.[9] Arabesque is similarly used correctly in English as a term for complex freehand pen flourishes in drawing or other graphic media.


Distinguished from grotesque

The motif of the arabesque featured strongly in the grotesque compositions of Imperial Rome, the acanthus stems and volutes forming frameworks generally depicted as inhabited by fantastical animal and corporeal forms. Whilst the grotesque is a wide artistic genre combining several elements in fantastical forms, the arabesque is just a motif or element frequently used within that genre, not a genre of its own. The form of the arabesque used in Imperial Rome was however kept alive by the Byzantine artists in the new capital, and was re-exported to the newly rebuilt Rome in the Byzantine style, but in a form less refined than the style of Imperial Rome.

Depiction in Byzantine art

File:Damasco moschea degli OmayyadiHPIM3241.JPG
Treasury of the Great Mosque, Damascus, 7th-century mosaic of arabesques created by Byzantine artists

Some of the best known usages of the arabesque in Byzantine art include the following:[10]

Modern usage

The arabesque is a pattern well known to the modern blacksmith who fabricates ornamental wrought-iron work gates and balustrades using the form. It has formed the basis of many wall-paper designs. Certain of the more fantastical paintings of Van Gogh show clouds and backgrounds in arabesque shapes.

Floriated & foliated forms

Frequently the arabesque is shown “floriated”, that is to say with a flower in the centre of the volutes, and “foliated”, showing leaves in varying degrees of profusion along the stems. The Ara Pacis arabesques are floriated but sparingly foliated, whilst those in the Dome of the Rock Mosque are profusely foliated with thick leaves forming segments of the stems.


File:P1000255 Acanthus spinosus (Spiny bear's breeches) (Acanthaceae) Plant.JPG
Acanthus spinosus showing the flower spike inspirational of the “standard” often accompanying the arabesque

Frequently an upright motif imitating the flower-stalk of the acanthus plant appears as a central element protruding vertically from within the heart shaped core. This is termed a “standard” but is not a necessary element or sine qua non of the arabesque, which term is concerned with the flowing and voluted form alone. The standard was frequently depicted as a fanciful candelabra in grotto-esque compositions, in which it is an important element, central to the composition.

See also



  1. ^ Drawings based on illustrations in Talbot-Rice, op.cit., plates 109-115
  2. ^
  3. ^ Osbourne, 34
  4. ^ Osbourne, 34
  5. ^ OED, "Arabesque"
  6. ^ "rebeske" being a now disused version of "arabesque", see OED, "Rebesk". Herne payment quoted in Erna Auerbach, Tudor Artists, 1954; not in print OED
  7. ^ OED, op.cit.
  8. ^ OED, "Arabesque"
  9. ^ Larousse Lexis Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise, Paris, 1993
  10. ^ depicted in Talbot-Rice, d. op.cit. Plates 109-115, pp. 140-143


  • Talbot-Rice, D. Byzantine Art, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1968
  • Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th.ed. Vol.2, “Arabesque”, pp. 233–4. Article by Wornum, R.N., author of “Analysis of Ornament etc”., 4to. ed., 1874, illustrated.
  • Everyman's Encyclopaedia, 5th. ed., 1967, vol.1, “Arabesque”, p. 353.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed., Oxford, 1989, 20 vols., vol 1, “Arabesque”
  • Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner, Macmillan, London, 1996, 34 vols., vol.2, “Arabesque” (demonstrates example of confusion in academic texts, assigning a “moresque” origin to “arabesque style” used in 18th-century French neo-classical designs)