Josheen Oberoi explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Met, a few centuries at a time.
New York: It would be fair to warn visitors of a possible sensory overload when they visit the galleries presenting the Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; not that it is a serious complaint considering the wealth of objects and information available for viewing. These collections have been mostly unavailable since 2003 when these galleries were closed for renovation. They opened again in November 2011 in an expanded space of fifteen galleries and have been feted far and wide.
The galleries are titled Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. When I visited, I was fortunate enough to speak with Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art, who walked me through this space and introduced some highlights of the collection. In speaking of the nomenclature of the collections, she said, “the name of the galleries speaks to the parameters of our collection, our department’s collection”. Instead of the overarching phrase “Islamic Art” that suggests a monolithic construction of an Islamic culture; this title is in fact a clue to the physical and historical reconfiguration of these galleries, and a particularly apt one in these times of misleading narratives of Islam worldwide.
Through the course of our conversation we walked chronologically through the numbered galleries (Galleries 450 – 464). Each of these galleries is defined both by geographical region and by time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century), clearly illustrated in the handy map the museum shares with visitors.
However, part of the curatorial vision of this space is the interconnectedness of these galleries. There is no forced flow of traffic. As viewers, we are free to move between regions and eras as we wish, making our own connections. Of course I have to admit, I was grateful for the direction that the numbered galleries gave me as a first-time visitor. Following Dr. Ekhtiar’s flow of narrative optimized the experience for me while subsequent visits allowed for an even deeper engagement.
What follows is a textual replication of my experience and the highlights of Dr. Ekhtiar’s talk. Because of the extensiveness of this collection, the talk has been divided into three posts. This post will walk through galleries 450 – 453 and primarily cover the 7th through the 13th centuries of present day Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Errors, if any, are in my understanding:
We started with Gallery 450: This is an introductory gallery containing a gamut of objects that reference what you will encounter through the rest of the spaces: textiles, calligraphy, pottery, wood carved architectural elements. This gallery also contained designs and shapes that became increasingly familiar to me as we walked through the rest of the galleries.
One of the unifying elements in art from the Islamic world, found across centuries and geographic region is the use of text, in the form of calligraphy. It was one of the most revered forms of artistic expression because it was the means of transmitting the Qur’an in Arabic.
This is a folio from probably the largest Qur’an ever produced. It is believed to have belonged to Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid dynasty (late 14th–early 15th century, before 1405; Geography: present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand). The story goes that the emperor wanted something unusual so the calligrapher took the tiniest Qur’an to him that required a magnifying glass to read. But the emperor was not impressed and so the calligrapher then created the largest Qur’an possible. This is in keeping with the Timurid world view, where everything must be larger than life and should be visible from a distance; case in point their monumental architecture. This Qur’an is now dispersed with various pages in different collections around the world.
Although many of us are familiar with the Islamic art of books, calligraphy was also used extensively as ornament in religious and secular contexts. It is not only used to convey messages but also beautify objects.
This 10th century bowl from Iran (the Samanid dynasty, 10thcentury AD) is one such example. Extremely elegant, its beauty lies is its simplicity and the contrast between the black and the white. But this is a secular piece, with the proverb, “Planning before work protects you from regret”, written around its rim. Made of earthenware, a basic material, the white surface gives a sense of stoneware or porcelain ware of China.
Moving on to Gallery 451: Arab Lands and Iran in the Umayyad and Abbasid Periods (7th–13th centuries)
The Umayyad dynasty(661 – 750 AD) was the first Islamic dynasty and was centered in Syria.
This gallery contains art from this dawn of the Islamic era. This is not to suggest a dramatic aesthetic break from this time onwards. On the contrary, it is in fact about the continuity with pre-Islamic traditions – in the west with the Byzantine and Coptic, and in the East with the pre-Islamic Persian and Sasanian, amongst others. This gallery celebrates both this continuity and the emerging distinctive vocabulary of Islamic culture.
This vase has a few very noteworthy elements to it. In shape, it resembles the elegance of a Sasanian vase but has mountain motifs that are typical of Central Asian and Chinese paintings. Interestingly, this motif is repeated on the surface. This element of repetition of pattern, calligraphic, vegetal, geometric, later became a prominent feature of art of Islamic culture. The handle of the vase is another interesting feature because it is a feline stretched all the way, peering at ducks at the top. This central Asian vegetal pattern in a pre-Islamic shape allows it to fit into many historical parameters.
This work is probably a panel from a Cenotaph or Symbolic Coffin and shows an interesting conjunction of pre-Islamic eastern and Western traditions. It appears to be a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional space. This is like a Byzantine mosaic, with arches but also winged columns that are Sasanian in nature. A very unusual find, this is a treasured object for the Met.
The second part of the gallery is the art of the cAbbasids, from their early period that is considered the Golden age (from 750 to 1250 AD). The cAbbasid caliphate succeeded the Umayyad dynasty and shifted the geographic center from Syria to Iraq, where Baghdad became the political capital, and Samarra, the second, princely capital. Many of the objects in this gallery were found at Samarra.
During this time, you see a new aesthetic approach emerging – the abstract vegetal designs repeating themselves, covering entire surfaces and a beveled design (so-called because of a certain, shallow slant in carving the surface) which is particular to this period and is found in many different mediums of plaster, stone, wood, ceramics, glass.
It was a time of innovation and one of these innovations was the use of paint on ceramics. Luster painting predated Islam in Egypt but it hadn’t been used on ceramics. In luster painting, once the surface has been decorated with pen or brush, the object is fired in a kiln, permanently fixing the design on the surface.
The Iraqi potters of Basra created these painted ceramics that looked like metal works (metal works were very expensive and reserved for royalty and wealthy people, ceramics were more easily available). This had a huge impact. Luster painted ceramics subsequently traveled from Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Iran, then to Spain, and from Spain to Italy and all over Europe having an enduring effect.
When the Abbasid caliphate started getting weaker, princely states started emerging. They all had their own rulers and ateliers but were still loyal to the Abbasids. A few of these dynasties are represented in this gallery. One of these dynasties is of the Samanids, referred earlier in Gallery 450, with their capital at Nishapur.
In the 1930s and 40s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum in Iran collaborated on excavation projects in Nishapur where every day architectural elements and objects of the Samanids were found. These were not meant for royal use.
Gallery 452 is a recreation of a 10th century room in Nishapur based on the architectural objects from these excavations, at a mound known as Tepe Sabz Pushan (“The Green-covered Mound”).
Gallery 453: Iran and Central Asia (9th – 13th centuries)
This room focuses on the far-reaching impact of the Abbasid style in the eastern Islamic world and the princely states that rose around and after the Abbasids like the eleventh-century Ghaznavid and twelfth-century Seljuq Sultans. The Seljuqs (ca. 1040 – 1157) were of Turkic origin, from the steppes of Central Asia. They embraced Islam and took over Iran and the surrounding regions.
The Seljuq sultanate had very opulent courts and were very interested in figural art. There is a popular perception that figural art is forbidden in Islamic culture and that is inaccurate. It is not seen in public religious buildings and contexts but is seen widely in a secular context.
A wonderful example is this incense burner in the shape of a feline. The largest of its kind, it is inscribed, which is how the identity of the patron and the maker is known and so it can be dated to the 12th century. Constructed in two parts; it can be separated, filled up with incense and lit up and the fumes come out of the holes in the body of the feline.
The Two Royal Figures, these life size statues in the gallery, made of stucco, could potentially have been palace guards or princes. Scholarship on these figures is ongoing. The presence of jewels, the clothes and headdress suggests that they could have been princes. They have Central Asian features, as do many paintings on the ceramics in this gallery, because these dynastic rulers were of Central Asian origin and this was the ideal of beauty and it remained so in the Eastern Islamic world for very long, till the 17th century or later.
The Seljuqs were very innovative in terms of ceramics. An important development in that period was the introduction of stone paste as a medium for ceramics in Iran and surrounding regions. This was closest to porcelain (the material used to make porcelain was not available in the region till the 20th century) and was harder, whiter and easier to manipulate.
Ceramics in these galleries are made of stone paste. These ceramics have mina’i narratives from the art of books from the Shahnama, and princely portraits, audiences, and a variety of scenes. Mina’i meaning “enameled” was a laborious process and required firing the kiln many times. These ceramics are also often seen with turquoise blue backgrounds, primarily because of the resources available there – copper and cobalt.
This gallery also includes a thematic case of astrology and astronomy with multiple objects like the Iranian books of stars and Mughal gold coins with star signs like Libra, amongst other objects with astrological signs – signs that are still used and remain familiar to us.
You can read more about the history of Islamic Art’s display at the Met prior to these galleries here.
We’ll explore some art from later Syria, Iran, Central Asia and Turkey in the next post. Stay tuned!