Guest blogger Saranna Biel-Cohen explores the stunning new galleries of Islamic art at the Louvre in Paris
Paris: Last year we featured a series of blog posts about the new Islamic wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 2012 was also the year of another significant opening in the world of Islamic art: Islam, at the Louvre in Paris.
Director of Islamic Art, Sophie Makariou explains the title was chosen to incorporate the expanse of the Islamic world throughout the centuries from Spain to India, The Empire of Islam, as it was known. Islam highlights cultural value of these works and their historical contribution spanning 1,300 years and three continents.
Comprising 18,000 objects dating from the 7th to the 19th century, the gallery explores the breadth and creativity of the civilization and is the largest collection of Islamic art in Europe. The collection is housed under an undulating structure made of aluminum and glass in the Louvre’s Visconti Courtyard, the most significant architectural addition to the museum since I.M. Pei’s glass pyramids of 1989. The project, by Italian architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, took six years to complete. Modeled on a silk scarf, the structure seems to float in mid air between the neoclassical buildings. Walking in to the gallery, there is an immediate sensation of being in a tent, with light pouring in from all sides.
The collection opens with an introduction to the Islamic world, beginning with the Prophet’s exile in 632 (Hegira in Arabic) and the subsequent conquest of Persia, Byzantium and beyond. The early period of Islam is represented by glass, metal and ceramics.
The gallery focuses on the intricacies of decorative texts on religious and secular objects and its various influences. Arabic writing predates Islam by a century. Then different forms of writing, Qu’ranic script and secular were used to adorn pieces, describe their function or offer protection to an object. The later incorporation of Persian, an indo-European language, further developed the use of decorative text and many objects with Persian poetry are on view. Read more about decorative calligraphy here.
A sleek, industrial looking metal staircase leads to the lower-ground floor. Large Turkish mosaics greet you at the bottom. They were found by a team of French-American archaeologists in the 1930s at Antioch (Antakya), once the capital of Syria, in the residential neighborhood of Daphne. A Roman tradition, mosaic making spread across the Roman Empire and was then used by subsequent civilizations for religious, public and private use.
This particular mosaic depicts a phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from ashes, bordered by pairs of ram heads. It was discovered in 1936 almost completely intact. Greek and Roman classical sculpture can be found in a two small rooms above the mosaics. Statues of Greek and Roman gods are housed there, a memory of an earlier civilization that had occupied parts of the region covered in the rest of the galleries.
There are large vitrines of Egyptian textiles dating from the 6th century. They bear Roman and Byzantine iconography that later evoked Christian interpretations. Cherubs picking grapes, playing instruments and dancing references the Roman god of wine, Bacchus while Christians interpreted this theme of wine as reference from a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus is a vine and God the vine grower.
The Islamic conquest of Persia (633–656) ended the Sassanid Empire. Iran became a part of the Islamic Empire and many of the objects in the gallery are associated with the mix of cultures that ensued.
The Islamic Empire expanded west to Spain and east to India. By the 16th century the Islamic world made up 30% of the global population.
An extensive collection from the Mughal Empire (about 1526-1858) includes intricate armor, elaborate daggers, ceramic tiles and Indian carpets. Many of the carpets were made in factories founded by Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) in Fatehpur Sikri, capital of the Mughal Empire for only about 10 years. To learn more carpets, click here.
The Ottoman Empire (14th–20th Century) stretched from the Balkans and Anatolia, around the Mediterranean basin, and as far as Morocco. Ottoman carpets are displayed, as well as large and small scale Iznik ceramics.
Funding for the 98 million Euro gallery was provided by the French government and supported by endowments from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Oman and Azerbaijan. Of the 18,000 objects in the collection, 3,000 are currently on view and 300 objects will move to the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017.
Guest contributor Saranna Biel-Cohen lives and works in London. She holds a Master’s Degree in History of Art from University College London with a focus on Modern Indian Art.