Islamic Art at the Met
November 7, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its renovated and newly enlarged wing of Islamic art, now called Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. The new space, which is gorgeous, is entirely redesigned. The galleries are now organized by theme and material as well as period. There is more figurative art—paintings, illuminated manuscripts, glazed pottery—and greater geographical breadth. Many of the pieces displayed in the old galleries are also here, newly contextualized. Others, never displayed, have been taken out of the museum’s twelve-thousand-object collection. And some pieces were acquired over the past eight years, while the wing was closed to the public. Among the most seductive of these new objects is a zoomorphic dagger (pictured above) from sixteenth-century Deccan India. I recently took a tour of the galleries with curator Navina Haidar, who talked to me about some of its treasures, new and old.
Navina Haidar: One of the things we wanted to do with the new galleries was to allow the living traditions of the Islamic world to have a role in creating the spaces. We found a remarkable group of artisans in Fes, who made this room for us based on the four original fifteenth-century columns that frame the court. These are from Grenada, but everything above them has been made by the artisans—the carved stucco work, the carved woodwork, and those beautiful zelij-tiled panels. Everything has been crafted in an authentic fifteenth-century style, showing the exchange between the Maghreb and al-Andalus during the medieval period. The room also adds a bit of light and color and water and air to the exhibition. It’s a space for contemplation. Daily life in the Islamic world can be so overwhelming. This is a space where you can relax and take it all in.
This was one of the earliest pieces that came into the collection, a gift from J. P. Morgan, who gave the museum this ivory casket in 1917. It’s a very interesting piece, because it has an entirely medieval body—you could go down to the Byzantine department and see caskets of a very similar shape and kind—but the figures on the corners wear turbans and robes that are clearly Arab.
When you look at the casket very closely, you see all kinds of fantastic beasts, evidence of a shared vocabulary between medieval Christian and Muslim imagery. You see that griffin there, whose wing turns into a bird’s head and whose tail turns into a kind of deer’s head? The furry one, with ears? He’s really an extraordinary character. But others are quite naturalistic. The ibex looks like the ibex we know.
This room was given to the museum by the Hagop Kevorkian foundation and has been on display since 1975. It’s a much-loved installation, allowing visitors to see a complete interior, beautifully decorated. It contains calligraphy, ornamental panels with charming painted vases, medallions and interlocking stars, a little live fountain, and inlaid mosaic panels on the floor. It gives you a sense of what the life of a nobleman in Ottoman Syria was like. It’s a human world.
This carpet is known informally as the Simonetti carpet, after the former owner. It’s one of the longest surviving carpets of this time, also from the Mamluk period. The dyes—amazing blues and greens and scarlet—are original. It’s datable to about 1500, when the Ottomans had taken over Egypt but Egyptian looms were still producing local designs. So you get a sense of continuity—the reach of the Ottoman world and Egypt coming into the fold.
The design contains five medallions. The central one is especially well composed. It’s very Islamic, if you like, in its aesthetic of loosely interstellar forms in the central field and cartouches in the borders. And it’s shown under this ceiling, with its wonderful interlocking stars. The ceiling is from sixteenth-century Spain and is in this room because it doesn’t fit anywhere else, but also because it suits the carpets very well. Taken together, the carpets and ceiling, medallions and stars show the importance of the geometric component to Islamic culture.
We’re looking at the Thughra of Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the great rulers—the great ruler—of the Ottomon Empire. This is the illuminated top piece of a long firman, or scroll, the form in which imperial orders were given. Firmans were produced in large numbers by the court calligraphers, but this one is particularly grand. The script actually spells out Suleiman’s name, in the Ottoman style of knotted calligraphy. The calligraphy of this firman is especially rich, executed in gold and lapis. In the illuminated interior of the signature, you can see a swirling design based on the saz leaf of Turkey, a serrated-edge leaf used extensively in the art of the period. The script below is in the diwani style. It gives the Sultan’s full title, which is rather hard to read!
Here is one of the most famous paintings in the collection, showing a pair of lovers. It was made by Reza Abbasi, a court painter for the Persian Shah Abbas I, the great shah of the Safavid period. Abbasi was a favorite artist of the king, especially toward the end of his reign. This work is from about 1630. Abbasi’s style was tremendously influential in Iran. He completely changed the way the human form was represented. His is a mannered style, with very elongated and swaying postures. It looks unlike anything else of the period, and nothing was the same after him. He also explored many new subjects, more daringly than the relatively formal artists who preceded him. Here he shows a pair of lovers. One of the man’s hands is going into the female’s robe and the other is grasping her face. It’s very passionate, yet modestly achieved. Paintings such as this often served as illuminations of Persian poetry or were inspired by the scenes evoked in those texts.