The Met’s ‘Art of the Arab Lands’

11.15.11

The Met’s ‘Art of the Arab Lands’

11.15.11
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

When you walk into rooms full of exquisite works of art which are foreign, you might try to make sense of the shapes, forms and colors in order to understand what you are viewing. This is often a liberating experience — whether or not you recognize how religion has inspired an image, for example. Nevertheless, you may recognize that image and why it is important and worth exploring.

The results can be surprising. What appears to a Westerner to be a lovely abstract drawing in cobalt blue and yellow, highly decorated, in a shape not unlike a musical note turned on its side turns out, amazingly, to be the official signature in gold leaf of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The first impression is overlaid with a truer understanding. This experience of astonishment and rediscovery lasted through my viewing of The Met’s wonderful new exhibit. As the Director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas P. Campbell, has said, “The Metropolitan Museum’s grand reopening of 15 ‘New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia’ provides a unique opportunity to convey the grandeur and complexity of Islamic art and culture at a pivotal moment in world history.”

“In sequence, the 15 new galleries trace the course of Islamic civilization over a span of 13 centuries, from the Middle East to North Africa, Europe, and Central and South Asia…The public will find galleries filled with magnificent works of art that evoke the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the vast cross-fertilization of ideas and artistic forms that has shaped our shared cultural heritage.”

The Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, has said: “Although our galleries represent a vast territory over a long period of time, the diverse artworks shown here are nonetheless unified in several distinctive ways. Primary among these is the extensive use of Arabic script…and virtuosic achievements in the arts of the book. A profound love of embellishment is often expressed through intricately interlaced, complex geometric forms….Because the objects in our galleries are primarily secular in nature, they can easily be appreciated both for their innate utility and for their astonishing beauty, whatever the viewer’s background may be.”

With this endorsement, I will highlight some astonishing images in this new collection with a side view of the galleries in which they are housed. In other words, I’ll be describing the jewel in its setting.

With the first opening image, however, the jewel is the setting. Used as a reception chamber in a Syrian Ottoman dwelling owned by an affluent Damascus family, it is known as the Damascus Room. It was built in A.M. 1119/1707 AD. The room is made of finely inlaid and richly worked poplar wood, white and a deep brown, with white tiles of sharp bright geometric shapes in deep golds and black and brown. The walls are inscribed with verses inspired by a 13th-century Egyptian poet. The room is dark, rich, soothing to the eye and welcoming. The Met describes it as “an important early 18th century example of domestic Ottoman architecture”

Now to the objects. I applied my technique to the first object, a gryphon, a fierce bird-headed horned beast with a powerful beak, a long, undulating elongated body ending in one clawed hoof, the leg of a throne. It was bronze, from Western Iran, dated roughly to the late 7th to early 8th century. (It was perhaps images like this that inspired the clawed feet of the legs of my grandmother’s nineteenth century dining room table.).

This bold, angular gryphon is a bronze star among a collection, which features manuscripts and early Qu’ran pages in Kufic script. Also displayed were lusterware pottery, metalwork and glass. An object on a much grander scale, another jewel which also defines its own setting is the Emperor’s Carpet. This carpet (Iran, 16th century) is so large and ornate yet subtle that it requires pages of thumbnail sketches on the website to do it justice. Dating from the second half of the 16th century it is made with silk and wool, “asymmetrically knotted pile.”

It took The Met more than three years to restore The Emperor’s Carpet. The carpet, which is believed to have belonged to Czar Peter the Great until 1698, has been displayed only twice since the Met acquired it in 1943 because of its worn condition.

The carpet is composed of a of a blue-border with a red –based center, and so richly woven with red/gold/blue flowers; lions and tigers and what appeared to me to be unicorns and large fish, that the eye can’t settle on any one thing—it invites long contemplation. I don’t mean scholarly contemplation - it is delightful.

The carpet is laid in a room that is also festooned with carpets but it is clearly “the king of the carpets.” I am not the only observer to note that the lighting is so subtle that the carpets around it appear to float.

Returning to the smaller scale images. In the same gallery as The Emperor’s Carpet is one of the museum’s few rare works on paper that depict Muhammad. This page is entitled, “The Feast of Sada” from the Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi, created for Shah Tahmasp (1514-76) of Iran. It is attributed to Sultan Muhammad around 1525.

Very like the carpet described above, this is an image so rich with detail and brilliant color and design that it is hard to describe it adequately. Deer, goats, unicorns (I think), richly garbed princes with pointy helmets or crowns, sculptures/models and wildlife in all forms, decorate this page. It is so exuberant that the crags and foliage literally burst out of the frame.

The final object I’ll describe - once again, a jewel and a setting, is the Mihrab or prayer niche, dating from A.H. 755- A.D. 1354-55. It is from Isfhan, Iran and is composed of multi colored glazed cut tiles set in mortar. It is a brilliant turquoise offset with white and gold, so bright it stuns the eye and so lovely in its calligraphic splendor that even though I could not read the script I could marvel at the rich, elegant decoration. This brilliant mihrab, or prayer niche, has been described as one of the most noteworthy pieces in The Met’s collection and now has a more central place in the galleries.

Most of the images in this beautiful exhibition are not religious but secular—and playful, delightful, fit to adorn the homes of wealthy people. Yet this mihrab, and its inscription from the Qur’an not only completes the witness to this prayer niche but also conveys a benediction on the exhibition, “Said [the Prophet] on him be blessing and peace…witness that there is no god save Allah and that Muhammad is his Apostle and the Blessed Imam…and he said, on him be blessing and peace.”

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