The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia – Part IV

Josheen Oberoi of Saffronart explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Met, a few centuries at a time.

New York: Last month I had started posting about the Islamic Art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that opened to the public after an eight year renovation in November last year. For those reading this series for the first time, here is a little introduction to these new galleries. 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 my last post, I had described the highlights of Galleries 459 through 461, that present the arts of the Ottoman Empire (ca 1299 – 1922), as shared with me by Dr. Maryam Ekhtiar, an Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art.  Here’s the very useful museum map again, to help follow the information:

Floor Plan of New Galleries
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today, I look at Gallery 462 and its arts of Safavids and later Iran (from the 16th – 20th centuries). We have followed Iran from the 7th century onwards from Galleries 451, 453 and 455 and this gallery brings our understanding of art from the region almost to contemporary times

Iran was united and ruled by the Safavid dynasty from 1501  -1722.  Shah cAbbas who ruled from 1587–1629 was an important patron of the arts and this period saw an expansion and revival of production in arts for local consumption and commercial exchange with Europe. Ceramics in the style of Iznik pottery from Turkey that we saw in the last post and luster ware that has also been discussed previously were both encouraged extensively as is visible in the objects in this gallery.  But when you enter this space, there are a few works of art that dominate the conversation – the carpets and the illustrated manuscripts.

Persian Garden Carpet
Object Name: Carpet
Date: second half 18th century
Geography: Iran, Kurdistan
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Under Shah cAbbas, carpet weaving and textile production was transformed into a state industry, designed and produced in royal workshops at the new capital of Iran – Isfahan, in southern Iran. There are many different types and styles of carpets on exhibit here – medallion, garden, a possibly royal carpet, the “Polonaise” and carpets known as ‘Portuguese carpets’.

The Persian garden carpet or the char-bagh, (on the left)  represented a bird’s eye view of a traditional garden, which included water channels, fish swimming in these channels, birds and trees.

The “Seley Carpet” below, in style of a medallion carpet, is an exquisite example of the combination of medallion and vegetal motifs. These carpets centered around a medallion, similar to what appeared on book covers and texts, suggesting a cross pollination of designs between different art forms. These medallions were then surrounded by scrolling vegetal designs.

The Seley Carpet
Object Name: Carpet
Date: late 16th century
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This ‘Portuguese’ carpet below shows the central medallion with floral vines combined with explicit maritime scenes with ships sailed by Europeans in the four corners, possibly testifying to an active export and mercantile exchange between Europe and Iran at this time. Just these few examples of the pieces exhibited in this gallery showcase the complexity and diversity of carpet production in Iran at this time, especially under Shah cAbbas.

“Portuguese” Carpet with Maritime Scenes
Object Name: Carpet
Date: 17th century
Geography: Northeastern Iran, Khurasan
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Rustam’s Fourth Course, He Cleaves a Witch”, Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp
Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020)
Artist: Painting attributed to Qadimi (active ca. 1525–65)
Object Name: Folio from an illustrated manuscript
Reign: Shah Tahmasp (1524–76)
Date: ca. 1525
Geography: Iran
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The other highlight in Gallery 462 are the intricate folios of the Shahnama or “Book of Kings”. This is one of the great treasures from the rule of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524 – 1576)  the second ruler of the Safavid dynasty. It was commissioned and made in the royal workshop. The Shahnama is a Persian national epic based on an oral tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times and was versified by Firdausi in the early 11th century. It contains within many Zoroastrian threads with the ideas of polarities, of good and bad – an illustration also intended as education to the rulers and princes. This particular manuscript of the Shahnama is the most luxurious Persian manuscript ever produced and the best artists were employed by the royal workshop – painters, calligraphers, binders, illuminators with two generations of artists working on these manuscripts. The Met has 78 illustrations out of a total of 258 illustrated folios, presenting epic love scenes, battles of fantastical creatures with humans or among animals. There are multiple folios on display at any time in the gallery, with seating available to engage with them at leisure.

If you visit please do set aside some time for these folios. They are intimate in size but so detailed and beautifully rendered. I find myself noticing new details in them with each successive visit.  I have also been linking the title of each work (immediately under the image) to it’s individual museum page. This allows you to zoom in and look at enlarged sections clearly. If you cannot visit the museum, I would recommend using this feature to do the images justice, especially for today’s post.

Next week, in the last post in this series, we will visit the remaining two (out of fifteen) galleries, showcasing Mughal and later South Asian art. Stay tuned!

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