Thursday, April 26, 2012

Islam at the Met

Here is a view of the beginning of the Muslim galleries in the Met with an arcade inspired by Ummayad architecture from the ruins of Anjar, in Lebanon.

After 8 years closed for renovation, the Islamic galleries of the Metropolitan Museum are finally open again.  They opened back up in November of last year after being closed since 2003.  According to unverified sources (museum, gallery, and local artists' gossip), a number of curators resigned over the course of those 8 years; first over the decision to close at that time (the city still traumatized over 9/11; the height of the Afghan War; and the Invasion of Iraq all in that year), and then because of conflicts over the design of the exhibition.

The Met's magnificent collection is back on display, if a bit tardy.  If it was up to me, I would have delayed the renovation and kept the exhibit open during those critical years between 2001 and 2008.  The collection could have played a crucial role as a standing reminder of Islamic civilization at a time when Osama Bin Laden was the face of Islam in the minds of the American public.

Better late than never, I suppose.

The galleries are magnificently renovated and organized with numerous small works and book arts imaginatively displayed and made more accessible.

These galleries are filled with beautiful things, though there is nothing in the way of monumental painting and sculpture as in the West.  The Quran says nothing about imagery, but the Prophet Muhammad had strong opinions on the subject.  He said that any artist who makes an image of a person will be summoned before God on the Day of Judgment and commanded to make the image speak.  Of course, the artist will fail that test and it's down to perdition.  Before we good Christian people scoff at that idea, let us remember that there are numerous Christians who think that Muhammad wasn't strict enough.  It was Muslim prohibitions on imagery that inspired the whole Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire.  As can be seen in the many book illustrations and painted ceramics here, that prohibition seems to have been even more flexibly interpreted in much of the Muslim world than similar prohibitions in many parts of the Christian world.

 These are splendid and luxurious art objects, many of them small and portable.  Islamic art had little room or patience for the grotesque and the horrible.  It was the religious and social duty of art to be beautiful in the Muslim world.

I recently took my trusty little digital camera to the Met's Islamic galleries and took all of these pictures.

A gallery of Islamic art and civilization must begin with the most important thing in Islam, the Quran, the collected revelations to the Prophet Muhammad.  When Muhammad first met the angel Gabriel on the mountain, Gabriel commanded him to recite all that was to be revealed to him, according to tradition.  The word "Quran" means "The Recitation" in Arabic.

Here is a Quran stand made of teak wood in 1360 by Hasan ibn Sulaiman al-Isfahani

On that stand is a Quran, 15th to 16th century, from the Ottoman Empire.

Here is a small volume of the Quran from the 9th century, from the Abbasid Caliphate written in early Kufic script.  I look at the beautiful intervals and rhythms in this script and I think that Mondrian must die of envy.

Writing was greatly revered in the Islamic world.  There is a mystical tradition that says that the pen was the first thing that God created so that He could write down all that was to come.  Calligraphy was a high art form, and great calligraphers enjoyed lasting fame in the Muslim world.
The calligraphers lavished their highest art on that holiest of books, the Quran, a book literally written by God, according to Muslim belief.  There are some Muslim traditions that regard the Quran as so holy that it is uncreated, that it was there with God from before the Creation.  Muslim tradition says that all Qurans in this world are copies of the original inscribed on gold tablets and always open before the throne of God.

The task of the calligrapher was gravely important.  Through the letter forms and the layout of the page, the calligrapher had to express something of the mystery, the power, and the awe of Who it was who spoke to the believer from the page.

A page from an enormous Quran from Samarqand made by the calligrapher Umar Aqta for Timur, better known as Tamerlane in the West, 15th century

A folio from a Quran made by Ahmad ibn al-Subrawardi in 1307

A mihrab from the Madrasa Imami in Isfahan, 1354; the inscription on the surrounding frame is from the Quran, Sura IX: 14-22

The Met has several magnificent glass mosque lamps from Egypt.  This one was made for the Mausoleum of Amir Aidakin al-Alai al Bunduqdar in Cairo in 1285.  Inscribed on this lamp and on all mosque lamps is the Ayat an-Nur, the Light Sura from the Quran:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His light: Allah doth set forth parables for men: and God doth know all things.

A mosque lamp appears on this Ottoman carpet, probably used for prayer, from Cairo, circa 1575-1590.

Writing plays a central role in Islamic ornament.  Here, a magnificent Kufic inscription forms the sole decoration of this bowl from Nishapur, Iran from the 9th century.  The text is a proverb:
Planning before work protects you from regret:  prosperity and peace

Here is another bowl from Samarqand from the 11th century with the inscription, "Forbearance is at first bitter to the taste, but in the end is sweeter than honey, Blessing."

Here is the state of the art navigation system of its day, an astrolabe.  This one is from Yemen from 1291 by the master instrument maker Umar ibn Yusuf al-Muzaffari.

For you fans of early science, here is a 15th century "Book of Images of the Fixed Stars (Kitab Suwar al-Kawakib al thabita) of al Sufi, based on Ptolemy's Almagest.  This book was made in Iran during the rule of the Timurids.
The classics of ancient Greek science were lost and forgotten in the West for centuries, and found their way back into Western readership through Arab manuscripts and translations.

Islam was the great bridge culture between East and West.  This magnificent bowl was made in the 13th century in Kashan, Iran in imitation of Chinese wares.

One of my favorite rooms in New York, a reception room (qa'a) from Damascus under the Ottoman Empire, 1707

A gallery filled with magnificent carpets.  The ceiling is carved wood from 15th century Spain, an Islamic survival after the Christian reconquest.

The "Simonetti Carpet," one of the Met's most famous and celebrated carpets, from Mamluk Egypt around 1500.

Herat, Afghanistan today is notorious for opium and brutal war lords.  Who would know now that it was once celebrated for its poetry, calligraphy, and painting?  All of those things come together in this beautiful page from an anthology of poetry by Sa'id and Hafiz made by the calligrapher Sultan Ali Mashhadi from 15th century Herat.

Islam produced some of the most beautiful books in the world.  Among many examples in the Metropolitan's collection is this work from Isfahan about 1600.  This is an illustration to a major work of Persian literature, the Mantiq al-Tair (The Language of Birds) by Farid ud-Din Attar.  This episode is the Concourse of the Birds. The artist is Habiballah of Sava.

Here is a detail of the Concourse of the Birds painted by Habiballah of Sava.  The Mantiq al-Tair tells the story of a group of 30 birds who gather to decide who should be their king.  Persuaded by the hoopoe, the wisest of the birds, they journey out to find the Simorgh, a Persian equivalent of the Phoenix.  When the birds reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh after a long journey, all they find is their reflection in a lake.  The Mantiq is an allegory of the quest for knowledge that contains these famous lines:
Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander'd into Darkness wide
Return and back into your Sun subside
Thanks be to Wikipedia.

This is a tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent, greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, a calligraphic monogram used as the equivalent of a state seal for official documents and proclamations, 1555.

Another example of Islam playing the role of bridge between East and West; this is a Persian copy of a Chinese painting of 2 Buddhist saints called lohans.  From Tabriz, circa 1480.

Magnificent Iznik tiles from the Ottoman Empire, from the reign of Suleiman in the 16th century;  Iznik is the Turkish name for ancient Nicea.

A magnificent luster ware bowl, so-called because of the opalescent sheen of the glaze, from 11th century Syria.

Lovers, a book miniature by Riza-yi 'Abbasi from Isfahan, 1630.  This surprisingly passionate and sensual work reminds us of the passion and sensuality of Persian love poetry, especially from Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty that ruled Persia in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Another example of East Meets West in Islamic art, A Night Time Gathering by Muhammad Zaman from Isfahan in 1664.  This clearly shows the influence of Western painting in the dramatic lighting and the use of chiaroscuro, even in the flowers in the margins.

This set of three wooden arches from 17th century northern India greets us as we enter the Islamic Indian galleries.   These galleries mostly contain works from the time of the Mughals like these arches.

Here is a detail from those three arches, a column capital showing the use of Hindu lotus motifs.

An example of the luxurious opulence of Mughal India, a small box made from nephrite and gold adorned with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds; from the 19th century

A splendid Mughal book miniature showing the Emperor Jahangir with his famous and powerful prime minister Itimad al Dawla, the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj Mahal was built

To my mind, one of the most luxurious items of all, a shamsa or calligraphic rosette containing the names and titles of the Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, from 17th century India.

A highlight of the re-opened Islamic galleries is this Moroccan courtyard created by a group of Moroccan master craftsmen specifically for the Metropolitan Museum, testament to the continuing durability of so many Islamic craft traditions, even in an age of mass production.

Here is a detail of the carved plasterwork from the new Moroccan Court at the Met.

Islam is as large, varied, and conflicted a universe as Christianity.  There is as wide a variety of belief in Islam as in Christianity.  Islam encompasses everything from the most universalist and liberal Sufism to the apocalyptic messianism of Shia to puritanical Wahabism, to the militantly fundamentalist followers of the Deobandi School and the readers of Sayyid Qutb.

It is quite likely that puritanical fundamentalist Muslims dismiss all the art in these galleries just as much as Christian fundamentalists would dismiss galleries full of Christian art, and for the same reason; as wasteful vanities and idolatry.

But this is not the Celestial Jerusalem and we are not living in Heaven.  We are living on the earth.  We are not angels.  We are mortal men and women.  We have art to make this mortal life bearable.  Art is worthwhile not because it is holy (it is not), but because it is human.  The record of history is mostly a record of crime.  Art is testimony to what we can imagine, to what we can be and do despite ourselves.


Paul said...

Another truly awesome post. Thank you, Doug, for inviting us to share these delights. And for fostering understanding among cultures.

JCF said...

Beautiful art, wise words. Thanks, Doug.