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
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…

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