Josheen Oberoi explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Met, a few centuries at a time.
New York: The Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was opened to the public after an eight year renovation in November last year. Organized by geographical regions and time periods (from ca. 7th century AD through ca. 20th century), these fifteen new galleries (Galleries 450 – 464) present historically rigorous exhibits of arts that flourished under the aegis of Islamic rulers through many centuries. These galleries are also incredible in representing the diversity of mediums and contexts of these artistic practices. In a post last week, I had described the highlights of Galleries 450 through 453, as shared with me by Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art. We left off at Gallery 453 with the art of Iran and Central Asia in the 9th – 13th centuries.
Here’s the very useful museum map again, to help follow the information.
Gallery 454: Egypt and Syria (10th – 16th centuries)
Today, we move back west to present day Syria and Egypt. The Fatimid dynasty ruled from 909–1171 AD. A threat to the Abbasid caliphate (that was centered in Iraq), the Fatimids founded the city of Cairo in the 10th century, making it their capital.
They were followed by the Ayyubid dynasty (1171 – 1260), which expanded its control to Syria and Yemen.
Following these two ruling dynasties was the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517). Decorative art thrived in these three periods, including the continuation of luster painting on ceramics that had flourished under the Seljuqs.
One significant achievement of the late Ayyubid and Mamluk rule in the arts was the development of enameled glass. Enameled and gilded glass involves application of gold/and or enamel on the surface of a glass object, which is then fired in the kiln to fix these materials on the glass. This was a highly valued medium, requiring a very intricate set of skills. The popularity and skills spread to Europe from here, with Venice becoming the center of enameled and gilded glass production by the fifteenth century. This gallery has a beautiful selection of enameled objects, especially lamps that would have been used to light up mosques.
An important example is this lamp on the left that was dedicated to an officer, a bowman in the Mamluk dynasty and is inscribed accordingly. The emblem of two crossbows against the red shield is repeated nine times on the object.
While you’re in this gallery, make sure you look up at the ceiling, which is lit by lamps that echo those on display from Egypt and Syria. However, these were in fact blown locally in Brooklyn, New York on commission from the museum. You will encounter such details throughout the galleries, tying in the heritage of the art in the showcases to artistic practices that continue in the present day.
From this gallery, we took a detour to a space directly connected to it, Gallery 458. Gallery 458 is a Special Exhibitions gallery with a changing rotation of exhibitions related to Islamic art. It is currently showing an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art.
Gallery 455: Iran and Central Asia (13th – 16th centuries)
We have already looked at Iran and Central Asia till the 13th century under the Seljuqs in Gallery 453 in the last post. This L shaped Gallery 455 now takes us back East, to Iran and the surrounding areas in the 14th and 15th centuries. It covers the Mongol, Turkmen, Timurid, and Uzbek dynasties in Iran and Central Asia. The Mongols who invaded this region are called the Ilkhanids (1256 – 1363). They brought an end to the cAbbasid caliphate (that we’re already familiar with) and established their center in northwest Iran.
Since the Mongols were based out of China, there is a lot of Chinese imagery visible like dragons and fish, birds and clouds depicted in the Chinese style, more of a wash and linear. There is again an attempt to recreate the look of porcelain.
These galleries also celebrate the flowering of the arts of the book among the Ilkhanids and subsequently Timurids.
The highlight of the gallery, however, is a mihrab, a prayer niche showing the direction of prayer which would be Mecca. This is from the Ilkhanid dynasty and it comes from a school in Iran and is a quintessential Islamic ornament – it has the arabesque, abstract vegetal infinite patterns, calligraphic elements, different registers of calligraphy and geometry. It is made of cut glazed tiles, chipped away like a puzzle and fit together. Its dark blue comes from cobalt that was easily found in the region.
The gallery, from one of its ends, then flows into Gallery 456, which is a court based on late medieval designs of Moroccan courts, with dadoes of glazed tiles. This was created by a dozen Moroccan craftsmen from Fez who came to New York and built it on site. The court is conceived around four pillars from 15th century Spain – from the Nasrid dynasty – that are the only historical pieces in this gallery. Centered around a fountain, this court celebrates the continuity of the crafts of these regions and provides a space for reflection.
While you’re here don’t miss the small information screen that chronicles the making of the court, including the process of cutting and laying the tiles for the intricate designs for the dadoes. It is not only informative but also quite fascinating in allowing us to see the processes and skills required for this living craft.
You can also see and hear a short commentary on the making of this court on the Metropolitan Museum’s youtube channel here.
Gallery 457: Spain, North Africa and the Western Mediterranean (8th – 19th centuries)
Adjacent to the Moroccan court, this gallery is devoted to art of Islamic Spain, North Africa, southern Italy and Sicily. As a result of a collaboration with the Hispanic Society, the gallery includes a beautiful display of holy books – early and late Qur’ans, Hebrew bibles, and two Hebrew books that use the same style of ornamentation as Muslim books. This shared visual vocabulary is also seen in tiles from Morocco and Grenada, from palaces and madrassas.
Next week’s final post will look at the arts of the Ottoman Turks from the 13th century through 1924, arts of Iran from the 16th – 19th centuries and arts of the Mughals and later South Asia. In the meantime, I hope you all have an opportunity to browse through the many links in this post!