Mosul arts and crafts

The Mosul School of Painting has produced some of the most awe-inspiring art in Iraq’s history.

Written by Geoff Hann, Karen Dabrowska and Tina Townsend-Greaves


The ‘Mosul School of Painting’ refers to a style of miniature painting that developed in northern Iraq in the late 12th and early 13th centuries under the patronage of the Zangid dynasty. In technique and style the Mosul school was similar to the painting of the Seljuk Turks, who controlled Iraq at that time, but the Mosul artists had a sharper sense of realism based on the subject matter and degree of detail in the painting, rather than on representation in three dimensions, which did not occur. Most of the Mosul iconography was Seljuk, including, for example, the use of figures seated cross-legged in a frontal position. Certain symbolic elements, however, such as the crescent and serpents, were derived from the classical Mesopotamian repertory.

Most of the paintings were illustrations of manuscripts, mainly scientific works and lyrical poetry. A good example of the earlier work of the Mosul school is a copy of the frontispiece painting dating from a late 12th century of Galen’s medical treatise the Kitab Al-diriyak (Book of Antidotes) which depicts four figures surrounding a central seated figure holding a crescent-shaped halo. The painting is in a variety of whole hues with blue Kufic lettering. The total effect is majestic. Another mid 13th-century copy from the same text suggests the quality of later Mosul painting, with vital realism in its depiction of the preparation of a meal and of horsemen engaged in various activities. This painting is as awe-inspiring as those of the early Mosul school; yet it is somehow less spirited. By this time, however, the Baghdad school which, combined the styles of the Syrian and early Mosul schools, had begun to dominate.

With the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, the Mosul school came to an end, but its influence continued in both the Mamluk and the Mongol schools of miniature painting. Craftsmen centred in Mosul also influenced the metalwork of the Islamic world from North Africa to eastern Iran. Under the auspices of the Mosul School they developed an extraordinarily refined technique of inlay, particularly using silver on bronze and brass. After delicately engraving the surface of the piece, strips of gold and silver were carefully worked so that not the slightest irregularity appeared in the whole of the elaborate design. The technique was carried by Mosul metalworkers around the Middle East, and similar metalwork pieces from Damascus, Baghdad and elsewhere are still known as Mosul Bronzes. Among the surviving pieces is a brass ewer in the British Museum by the artist Shuja ibn Mana, which is inlaid with silver and dates from 1232. It is inscribed with battle scenes, animals and musicians within medallions.

Mosul metalworkers also created pieces for Eastern churches, for example, a candlestick by the artist Shuja ibn Mana dating from 1238 in bronze with a silver inlay. As well as displaying the familiar medallions it is also engraved with scenes showing Christ as a child. Rows of standing figures, probably saints, decorate the base. The background is decorated with typically Islamic vine scrolls and intricate arabesques, giving the piece a unique look.

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