I may be an (agnostic) atheist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty and cultural output produced by religious societies. For all its modern troubles, especially with the West, the Islamic world was one of history’s greatest civilizations, rich in artistic, scientific, and intellectual progress.
The innumerable achievements that emerged during the Golden Age of Islam – in areas ranging from medicine and agriculture to architecture and literature – cannot be understated. Indeed, the West owes much of its development to the contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars and thinkers, who were also the keepers of ancient philosophy that would have otherwise been lost.
It is for this reason, and my overall love of world culture, that I’m very excited to see one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious museums create a permanent gallery devoted to Islamic art, known by the unwieldy but descriptive title, The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.
Since November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has established a 15-room venue featuring some 1,200 works across 13 centuries of Islamic civilization. Among the materials provided are manuscripts, textiles, glass, ceramics, jewellery, military equipment, paintings, scientific instruments and carvings (from wood, stone, or ivory). Even the rooms themselves are genuine works of art, designed to accentuate the aesthetic of the displays:
The attention to detail in these rooms is remarkable. Architectural elements help to convey the sensibility of different eras and regions. The Introductory Gallery, for example, is paved with a design of white and gold marble inspired by decorations at the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. For the Moroccan courtyard the museum commissioned carvings by craftsmen from Fez. Among their creations during months on scaffolding at the Met are replicas of 14th-century wooden doors, and geometrically patterned cornices and capitals. The space itself is opulent and serene, complete with a burbling fountain—one of several in these galleries. It is not surprising to learn that the construction budget alone for these rooms was $40m. But given the results, it doesn’t seem profligate.
Multiple entrances are provided, which nicely suggests there is no one way to approach the art within. But use the main one the first time. Here visitors are greeted with a large and arrestingly modern earthenware bowl. Made in Nishapur, Iran in the tenth century, this creamy, white piece is decorated with a seemingly abstract design on its perimeter, in fact a Kufic script that reads: “Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace”. Like much of the Met’s Islamic collection, the bowl was intended for secular not sacred use. As a result, the works on view are more accessible to those unfamiliar with Islamic practices.
… The Greater Ottoman World gallery seems vast. Its domed ceiling, a later-Ottoman inspired, Spanish wood-lattice affair, rises to 23 feet. The walls and mottled marble floor are the colour of claret. The almost 30-foot-long “Simonetti Carpet” (made in Cairo around 1500) is unfurled in the centre of the room. Like the many carpets hanging on the walls, its dominant colour is red. For all its luxury there is something transcendently cosy about this room, which seems to hug viewers as it glows and pulsates with richly textured reds. It is easy to imagine the sight of it driving Mark Rothko into an envious rage.
It seems that merely passing through it could be a breathtaking experience. I can see why the Met took eight years to set all this up, whereas originally it intended for a much smaller and temporary gallery. The Economist article I hyperlinked provides a view highlights, as well as a mini-slideshow of featured works.
Calligraphy and the arabesque—a continuous leaflike design—dominate Islamic art, yet there are many figurative works here as well. One of the first and most striking examples is a three-foot high, bronze lion with pussycat ears (pictured above). This 12th-century incense burner is incised with calligraphy that identifies its maker and first owner. Figurative art is not prohibited by Islam, as is commonly supposed. A few discreet depictions of the Prophet Muhammad may distress some Muslims, who object to any images of the prophet. But here—and as with everything else in these galleries—the museum has handled the presentation with sensitivity.
When travelling in a counter-clockwise path from the main entrance, the layout is broadly chronological, with galleries arranged by region. The route takes the visitor through the spread of Islam from Arab Lands and Iran under the Umayyads and Abbasids (seventh to 13th centuries) all the way to Later South Asia (16th to 20th centuries). The wall texts are informative, but the revelation is how powerfully the works speak for themselves, and how varied Islamic art is. The arrangement reveals stylistic differences as well as interactions across regions and over time. Chess, for example, began in India before the sixth century. On display is one of the earliest surviving chess sets, made from a type of pottery in Iran in the 12th century.
…The marvels keep coming, from astrological and medical texts to a richly embellished 18th-century Damascus reception room. Also on view are a dozen pages from the magnificently painted Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. This reviewer never imagined that carpets—and there are many here—could be so moving. (No reference to magical airborne travels intended.)
I would love to see all this for myself, for it sounds like it would be an unforgettable experience. When I visit New York City, I’ll definitely spend a day, if not more, at the Met.
I encourage you all to check out the gallery’s dedicated webpage, which includes a ton of photos and information. The display offers a rare glimpse into a poorly understood and underrated culture. As the article rightly concludes:
The Met’s Islamic galleries offer a grand voyage to faraway times and places, and an eye-opening display of art. If these rooms do anything to replace fear and suspicion about Islam with a sense of wonder and curiosity, then there is all the more reason to celebrate.
Though I have my personal reservations towards religion, I still value the magnificent ingenuity and creativity of our species, whatever their belief system.