The new Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are spectacular. Renovated, expanded, and reinstalled to a suite of 15 rooms spread over 19,000 square feet of space, they have on view a cornucopia of priceless objects. Calligraphy, carpets, carvings (from wood to stone to ivory), ceramics, gems, glassware, manuscripts, metalworks, tiles and textiles dazzle visitors with their beauty and technical virtuosity.
After an eight-year, 50 million dollar renovation, the old Arts of the Islamic World wing has been renamed “The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and later South Asia.” While this rather unwieldy new name omits the word “Islamic,” it does underline “the geographic breadth and varied history of Islamic culture.” In this new “museum within a museum” artworks are categorised by time and place, rather than style.
The Met – as the museum is affectionately known – believes that a deeper, objective understanding of the arts of the Islamic world will replace fear and suspicion about Islam with a sense of wonder and curiosity. In an effort to foster greater understanding of the Islamic aesthetic, posters outside the museum urge passers-by to “Rediscover the Islamic World.” And at the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the galleries, the director of the museum Thomas P Campbell said: “It is our job and the great achievement of these galleries to educate our audience about the depths and magnificence of the Islamic tradition.”
The renovated galleries showcase 1,200 artefacts, one tenth of the Met’s massive collection of some 12,000 Islamic art treasures. Ranging in date from the seventh to the 19th century, Islamic art masterpieces from as far westward as Spain and Morocco and as far eastward asCentral Asia and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent are beautifully displayed.
One of the highlights of this momentous exhibition is a striking 14th century prayer niche – or mihrab – from Iran. Decorated in blue and white tiles with complex vegetal ornamentation – the arabesque – and intricate geometric patterns, this exquisite artefact is covered with calligraphy in muhaqqaq, kufic and thuluth scripts of Quranic inscriptions and excerpts from the ahadith (the Prophet’s sayings). As this harmonious arrangement provides a perfect demonstration of how Islamic art intends to inspire a sense of wonder, this marvellous mihrab is placed as a principal piece of the permanent display.
For the Islamic world, the art of writing has always been of extraordinary importance. Calligraphy is ubiquitous in the arts of Islam. It appears on architecture and on virtually all forms of decorative arts. So in the Met’s display, exquisite Arabic calligraphy is everywhere — on coins and jewellery, on textiles, on weapons and armour, on tools and utensils, in paintings and, of course, in manuscripts.
One of the first things visitors see at the entrance is a nine-foot-high monumental page of Quranic calligraphy from Uzbekistan. This fragmentary folio is from a manuscript thought to be the world’s largest Quran, which, according to legend, was made for Timur (Tamerlane) after this conqueror rejected an earlier copy as too minute to be worthy of the great book. Undeterred, the scribe went back to work and returned with a copy so huge that he had to carry it in a wheelbarrow to present it to the king at the court.
While the majority of the objects on display are secular, lavishly illuminated Holy Qurans are on view in almost every room. A superb example of Islamic calligraphic achievement is the so-called “Blue Quran,” a ninth century Tunisian marvel of gold ink on parchment dyed with indigo.
For stunning opulence and sheer dazzle nothing can beat the display of carpets and textiles. Gallery 10 is the major showcase for pieces selected from the Met’s fabulous collection of almost 800 Islamic carpets. In this room, there is a magnificent display of antique carpets under the 10-by-9-metre (33’’x28’’) Spanish ceiling. This wooden carved masterpiece of geometric strap-work, gilded and elaborately painted, is stunning. The brilliant curatorial decision of filling the gallery with a star-studded geometric ceiling above and geometric carpets below provides a truly unforgettable visual treat.
In the Egypt and Syria Gallery, which covers the 10th to the 16th centuries, and in the Greater Ottoman World Gallery, some of the finest classical carpets in existence are on view. One such masterpiece is the glorious five-colour Mamluke carpet – the “Simonetti” (named after an Italian owner) – that “intoxicates the senses breathing fiery reds and golds and luminous greens hemmed within integrated geometric design.”
Another fabulous carpet is the 16th century Persian Emperor’s Carpet. Twenty-four feet long and 11 and a half feet wide, this is a sumptuous “masterpiece of tightly woven and densely knotted silk and wool in whose decorations animals leap, flowers entwine, vines scroll.” Recently restored, this exceptional carpet was presented to the Hapsburg Emperor Leopold 1 by Peter the Great of Russia.
The new galleries also showcase 130 selections from the Met’s collection of Islamic manuscripts, folios and paintings from Mughal South Asia, SafavidIranand theOttoman Empire. Notable amongst these are a dozen pages from the sumptuous copy of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, created for Shah Tahmasp (1514–1576) ofIran, and the lavishly detailed royal miniatures from the magnificently painted imperial Shah Jahan Album, compiled for the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal.
Arabesques, palmettes, floral and geometric designs, all hallmarks of Islamic art, embellish the dazzling lustreware, delicate Iznik ceramics and ornate metalwork on display. The Met also offers two specially striking immersive installations: the Damascus Room, an early 18th century reception room (qa’a) from a mansion inSyriaand the Moroccan Courtyard, created inside the museum in authentic 14th century style by contemporary artists from Fez, Morocco.
Conceived post 9/11, this outstanding Met exhibition is undoubtedly a concerted effort to foster greater understanding of the arts of the Muslim world.