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On the Magic Carpet of the Met

Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan

an exhibition at the Morgan
 Library and Museum, New York City, October 21, 2011–January 29, 2012
brown_3-120811.jpg
Bequest of Benjamin Altman/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Silk animal rug; 95 x 70 inches, made in Iran, probably Kashan, 1550–1600

Unlike the no less challenging civilizations of East and South Asia, the world of Islam suffers from having been a charged opposite to the West. Ever since the seventh century CE, when Muslim armies first spread with baffling ease across the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Islamic civilization has been viewed, in Europe and in America, as shot through with an eerie sense of grandeur tinged with menace. The threat posed by Muslim powers on the frontiers of Europe was sharpened by the feeling that Islam itself was not entirely alien. It was seen as a mutation from the common stock of Judaism and Christianity that was all the more disturbing because the family resemblance between the three religions had not been entirely effaced. This attitude has persisted into modern times.

As a result, this major civilization, close to Europe in more ways than one, has been regarded by many as more than usually inaccessible. The beauty of its art, however, has always had its admirers, both in Europe and in America. The Aesthetic Movement of the later nineteenth century, which prized beautiful objects regardless of their time and origin, reached out to the decorative arts of Islam. One of the first donors to the Islamic collection of the Metropolitan Museum, Edward C. Moore, was the chief designer at Tiffany and Company from 1868 to 1891.

Not all collectors were aesthetes. A robust contributor to the Islamic collection of the Metropolitan Museum, James Franklin Ballard (1851–1931), was a manufacturer of patent pills from St. Louis, Missouri. In middle age he developed a passion for Oriental rugs. He knew North Africa and the Middle East. He traveled 47,000 miles in those regions. He happened to be present at the opening of the tomb of Tutankamen; he also happened to be put in prison briefly by the Greek government. He witnessed the terrible burning of Smyrna in 1922. By modern standards, he held old-fashioned views on the Orient. But his heart was in the right place. He knew what it was to seek out beauty:

It would seem to me that every man or woman should have a “hobby” of some kind—something sufficiently interesting to make it possible to forget, for a time, the everyday cares and worries and get the mind into a new environment. A complete change of thought is both restful and refreshing.

It is as good a motto as any with which to visit the new Islamic galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, which opened at the beginning of November and have been completely renovated, expanded, and reinstalled.

In the case of the Morgan Library, the core of the collection of manuscripts from the Islamic world was first purchased, in 1911–1912, by J. Pierpont Morgan at the urging of his remarkable head librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. This initiative had been the result of a joining of hearts. Greene and the art critic Bernard Berenson had come together at the great Munich exhibition of Islamic art in 1910. It seems that both shared in the thrill of the discovery of so much beauty in what was, for each of them, a new and hitherto alien world. The result was a collection of unique pieces that was magnificently catalogued in 1997.1

But how can this discovery be made to happen today? For the Morgan Library it is a relatively easy task. The exquisite painted manuscripts in the collection can be trusted to tell their own tale. We enter a single exhibition room, with great manuscripts of the Koran placed in the center, flanked by other manuscripts produced in late medieval and early modern Iran and in Mughal India. Here we are shown two things: the stark spine of a world religion condensed in the Korans, and then, around them, the imaginative heritage that flourished beside the Koran like a great magic forest.

It is a forest of many avenues that reach in many directions. We can go back to the centuries before Islam, through Persian tales of pre-Islamic rulers, among them Alexander the Great, in the illustrations of the ShahnamaBook of Kings—of Firdausi (940–1020) and in the courtly tales of Nizami (1141–1209). We can look out across Eurasia, through scenes set in Persian renderings of Chinese landscape painting. We can look over the western boundaries of the Islamic world, by following the life of the great poet Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī of Konya (1207–1273), a mystic perched on the frontier with Byzantium. His Sufi music entranced neighboring Christians and his love of God found room for all faiths. In one miniature we meet the figure of Jesus, his head wreathed in the flames that marked him out as a prophet acclaimed by the Koran.

Passing along the walls devoted to the miniature paintings of sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century Iran and India, we can feast our eyes on a series of portraits of dreamy young men and women and of worldly-wise courtiers as full of character as were the Western miniatures of their contemporaries Clouet or Nicholas Hilliard. They were drawn in courts that were as magnificent and as diverse as any ruled by François I or Queen Elizabeth. The Morgan exhibition is a worthy tribute to the opening of the heart and mind to different worlds, first provoked by the enthusiasm of Belle da Costa Greene and her circle.

The curators of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have faced a different and more challenging task: how to do justice to an entire galaxy of cultures touched by Islam, which spread from the Atlantic to South Asia and the borders of China, and which changed constantly over the course of a millennium. In this immense galaxy, the arts of late-medieval Iran and Mughal India, displayed in the Morgan Library, are no more than a single, incandescent cluster. The curators have displayed the changing galaxy with an intellectual determination and with a visual discretion that make their new installation a delight to the eye and their meticulous new catalog a thrill to the mind.

First of all, the galleries now bear a distinctive name. They are the New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. It is a mouthful. But behind the title lie decades of careful thought on the relation between the universal and the particular across a far-flung commonwealth of cultures. The notion of Islamic art as a single, uniform system that spread with monotonous insistence across the territories ruled by Muslims is effectively dismantled. The essays of the four editing curators, Maryam Ekhtiar, Priscilla Soucek, Sheila Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar (along with the other contributors), make this point clear. The galleries have been reinstalled with the express purpose of doing justice to the distinctive flavor of each region.

It is not often that an intellectual contention is turned into a work of beauty in itself. But this is what Michael Battista and his fellow installers and designers have done with the layout and décor of the new galleries. Their work has allied itself with the discreet, almost subliminal beauty that radiates from the objects themselves. Lattice screens, made for the purpose in Egypt, transform the light from the courtyard around which the galleries are placed. Their firm horizontal lines point the visitor forward from region to region. The floor itself seems to move. Each room, dedicated to one region, is paved with a different stone—from bright Egyptian marble, patterned with great sunbursts, stars, and cartouches in the entrance hall, all the way around to the gentle sandstone of India.

By the time that we reach the arts of the western regions—southern Spain and North Africa—we suddenly realize that we have traveled a huge distance. Some four thousand miles separate Cordova from Central Asia. In medieval conditions, this would have taken the best part of a year to cover. Reaching the end of the galleries, we are brought up sharp by a small Moorish courtyard framed by arches in stucco work, carved by contemporary craftsmen from Morocco, mounted on columns of the fifteenth century. The heart leaps at the sheer joie de vivre of it. It is a delicious condensation of the insistent beauty that has pressed in around us throughout our journey.

The layout of the galleries is devoted to stressing the diversity of the lands and cultures associated with Islam. Yet the rooms are aligned in such a way that we can shrink the distances between different regions. For example: if we look across the galleries from the room dedicated to the arts of western Islam, our eye catches, in the distance, a majestic Ottoman carpet. On this carpet, patterns that had already circulated through many regions for centuries, Andalusia and North Africa among them, are gathered up once again, in sixteenth-century Anatolia, into yet another explosion of beauty.

Our journey is constantly punctuated by such thrills of recognition across wide distances. The objects in each room do not fall into enclosed regions. Nor do they speak of a rigid uniformity. Rather, they emphasize the remarkable degree of mutual visibility created by a civilization that had turned the southern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Iran, along with Central and South Asia, into a vast whispering gallery of stories, motifs and techniques.

But the new arrangement does something more. We are not invited merely to view this art. Like its original owners, we are invited to be engulfed in it. We see carpets and panels; lamps, vases, and eating ware; austere Korans in the challenging new Arabic script; textiles bearing motifs that reach back for centuries to the courts of the Roman emperors and to the kings of ancient Persia; tiles whose inscriptions discreetly fill the room with visual whispers of praise of God and with prayers for the good fortune of the owner, whose very inkwells (decorated with figures of the Zodiac—unchanged since the days of ancient Greece) bring down upon the house the blessing of happy stars. All these are brought together, for each period and for each region, to form a series of “virtual” rooms. They echo the visual completeness of the famous Reception Room from early-eighteenth-century Damascus that has always been the pride of the Metropolitan’s collection.

Furthermore, exhibition cases are placed in front of comfortable stools (of modern Egyptian manufacture) with a solid ledge on which to rest one’s elbows. These allow us to sit down and sink our eyes into miniatures whose art, at its height in early modern Iran, was marked by masterly understatement—by tiny brushstrokes that invited the viewers to take their time, and to unravel at their leisure the visual subtlety of the miniatures.

What does all this mean for our appreciation of the world that produced this art?

First, the galleries make plain that what we call “Islamic art” marks the culmination of a process and not the abrupt beginning of a new age. The spectacular successes of the Muslim armies and the novelty of the Koran tend to make us think of the creation of Islamic culture as a totally new departure. But the patient work of the archaeologist and of the historian of early Islamic art tells a very different story.

  1. 1

    Barbara Schmitz, Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and Paintings in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997). 

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