Masterpieces of Islamic Art

The term ‘Islamic Art’ evokes images of flowing calligraphic bands, zellige-covered walls, carved wooden pulpits, Arabesque decoration, illustrated manuscripts, to the end of the long list of wonders and marvels produced from as far to the East as China and all the way to Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. Whether it is the Alhambra in Granada, the Sher Dor Madrasa in Samarkand or the Complex of Qalawun in Cairo, there seems to be a common storyline despite the profusion of styles. What is that storyline? What binds all these styles together across hundreds of years and tens of thousands of miles?

While many historians opt to the easy answer of ‘unity of faith’, the answer is not at all a straightforward one, and some other historians reject the term altogether. This should come as no surprise given the fact that most of the art history terms used today are relatively modern inventions. How can we define ‘Islamic Art’ then? What are the criteria and the parameters? Is it art produced by Muslim artists and artisans? Is it art commissioned by Muslim patrons? Is it art produced in territories subject to Muslim rule? Is it religious in nature? Secular? Both?

The term Islamic Art, in my opinion, is both reductionist and misleading, as it reduces the art of the Islamic World to only one of its cultural determinants: religion.
Most historians and critics tend to fall into the classical mistake of examining this art through a western lens/mentality, applying classical concepts to an entirely different realm. Abstraction, movement, horror vacui, density and intentional absence of naturalism are some of the most immediately recognizable characteristics of this art, while vegetal decoration, geometrical patterns and calligraphy are its three omnipresent elements.

Last Wednesday, I gave a lecture titled ‘Masterpieces of Islamic Art’, during which I presented 8 masterpieces, namely:

Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons
Miniature Painting
The Mughal Empire, India

The Ardabil Carpet
Textiles and Carpets
The Safavid Empire, Iran

The Blacas Ewer
Metalwork
Atabeg, Iraq

The Tughra of Suleyman the Magnificent
Calligraphy
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey

The Corning Ewer
Cameo Glassware
Fatimid, Egypt

The Djenbereger Mosque
Earthen Architecture
The Empire of Mali, Mali

The Kutubiyya Minaret

Carved Wood / Carpentry
Almoravids, Morocco

The Pyxis of al-Mughira
Carved Ivory
Umayyad, Spain

From the Pre-Islamic civilizations and cultures in Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant, the art of the newly-born Islamic world took some inspiration. Nevertheless, the strongest impact on Islamic Art during its early years was that of the Byzantines and the Persians, visible in Umayyad and Abbasid art respectively. Following this early phase, and as Islam expanded, a second phase followed that was characterized by an incredible profusion of styles that coincided with a golden age. This eventually gave way to the Three Empires Phase, in which the Safavids of Iran, the Ottomans of Asia Minor and the Mughals of India controlled vast areas of the Islamic World between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

My gratitude to the 20+ attendees that made this course worth all the effort.

Three Masterpieces of Islamic Art at the Louvre

“Our task is to reveal the radiant face of this civilization and its undisputable contribution the world.” – Henri Loyrette, President / Director of the Musée du Louvre

On 22 September 2012, visitors to the Louvre could enjoy –for the first time- the collection of the new Department of Islamic Art exhibited at the Cour Visconti under an undulating glass and metal roof that resembled a flying carpet, work of architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini. The structure has been hailed as the greatest milestone for the Louvre ever since the Grand Louvre project.

Apart from the structure, one only needs to mention that the collection covers thirteen centuries of Islamic art and comes from three different continents for the reader to realize the breadth of its spectrum. Nevertheless, it is not only the breadth, but also the aesthetic value of the objects that makes this collection unique. Take for example, the Pyxis of al-Mughira (c. 968), a jewel Islamic art in al-Andalus. The Pyxis is an extraordinary example of the ivory carving and engraving tradition in the late Umayyad Caliphate period. Only the Pyxis of Zamora in Madrid is comparable in aesthetic quality.

From al-Andalus (in present-day Spain and Portugal) where the Pyxis was produced, one can travel to the other extreme of the medieval Islamic World, where another masterpiece is on show at the Museum, namely the Candlestick with Ducks from Khurasan, made of engraved copper inlaid with silver. The twelfth/thirteenth century object is a perfect example on the exceptional craftsmanship of coppersmiths at that part of the world, but that is not all: the objects to enjoy include metalwork, glasswork, ceramics, tiles, manuscripts, carpets, textiles, to the end of the list. A list that is, probably, too extensive for some tastes.

From Syria (or Egypt) comes the Basin of Saint Louis (known as the Baptistère du Saint-Louis, c. 1330), a masterpiece of Mamluk metalwork crafted by Muhammad Ibn al-Zain. The hammered brass inlaid with silver and gold is of exceptional quality, the decoration is exquisite, and the iconography is interesting as it shows Mamluk princes holding the ‘instruments’ of their offices.

Sophie Makariou, the Department’s Director, holds that “the civilization behind Granada’s Alhambra, Taj Mahal, Cairo’s great monuments, the mosques of Istanbul, or Isfahan’s Shah Mosque is a great universal civilization.” This fact, in itself, poses numerous challenges, one of them having to do with interpreting the collection and presenting it to the audience. Still, the viaion cannot be clearer, and Makariou puts it clearly:
“The Louvre is restoring this department to its rightful place in the historical chorus of civilizations.”