Metropolitan Museum of Art, 365 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
We have every reason to be grateful to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the way its curators have been presenting major exhibitions on hitherto neglected periods and societies. They do not only put Golden Ages on show. They also give careful attention to baffling moments of transformation—such as the great transition between Christianity and Islam in the late antique Middle East or the little-known opening phases of the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.* Such exhibitions are historiographical events of the first order. Temptingly entitled “Court and Cosmos,” the exhibition of the art of the Seljuq rulers, whose empire reached from Central Asia to the eastern Mediterranean, reveals a world that is largely unfamiliar to us.
Even in Turkey, the Seljuqs, who held power there between 1071 and 1307, are overshadowed by the achievements of later, Ottoman Turks—by the campaigns of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451–1481) and by the splendid architecture of Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566). To appreciate Seljuq monuments, we have to leave Istanbul, dominated by famous Ottoman mosques, and head eastward into lesser-known corners of Anatolia. Who would expect to find, at the end of a highland valley where beekeepers from the Black Sea still congregate to feed their swarms on sweet mountain thyme, the exquisite mosque and hospital of Divriǧi, built by a Seljuq emir in 1228–1229? Its intricate medallions, carved in golden stone, are as refined and sumptuous as Spanish plateresque. The water channels that run across the floors of the hospital were deliberately carved so as to make the flowing water gurgle with exactly the right tone and rhythm to soothe the strained nerves of the mentally ill, according to a theory of musical therapy that went back to the ancient Greeks.
Seljuq art is full of such surprises. But they do not come easily. The very refinement of Seljuq art renders it opaque to us. The present exhibition has gathered together the best of the best. Brass and silver sparkle under skillfully placed lights. Stucco work comes alive through the play of shadow and light. Ceramics glow with luster or arrest our eyes with unexpected tones and textures. Great robes are spread out as if taken straight from the loom.
But the meaning and uses of many of these objects are hard to grasp. Faced by…
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