|Tile panel. Polychrome painted under transparent glaze. TURKEY (Iznik), 16th century.|
63.4 cm x 26.4 cm x 5.5 cm deep.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
The art collected in this spectacular show by its curator, Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, illustrates the vast spread of the Ummah—the traditional Islamic community. Al Khemir's point of the unity of expression is made through the inclusion of work not only from the Middle East and North Africa. An orienting graphic that greets the visitor is a huge map of the eastern hemisphere, marking regions and cities that are centers of Islamic culture. I was impressed to see this vast range laid out visually: It extends from Toledo and Valencia to Venice to Mogadishu; Aden to Ankara, Tashkent and New Delhi, to eastern China and south to Kuala Lumpur.
|Qur'an Manuscript, Volume 16. Ink and color on burnished cream paper|
with brown morocco binding. CHINA, 18th century. 22.2 x 29.2 x 2.5 cm.
Beauty and Belief emphasizes visual consonance across socio-economic levels as well. It presents work from royal households—items of breathtaking craftsmanship made from precious materials. But there are just as many artifacts put to daily use from common homes, ceramics particularly.
The breadth and unity of Islamic culture is further illustrated by the variety of materials and processes in which one finds similar motifs. The show includes ceramics, textiles, many metals worked in forms as dainty as incense burners and as grand as doors; ivory; paper; wood; glass; and photographs of architecture. Across all media we see decorations based in endlessly elaborated calligraphy; flora and fauna; geometric patterns; and all of these nestled in patterns that blend elements in indistinguishable unity.
|Incense Burner. Cast brass, pierced, engraved, and inlaid|
with silver. SYRIA (Damascus), 15th century.
Diameter 13.4 cm. The British Museum, London.
Art-making is always an act of devotion in Islam: The artist's actions and the results of his labor are suffused with spirituality. The tiniest mark is invested with the holy since, "God is the ultimate beholder." This does not mean that every decorated item assumes religious or sacred function—only the contents of the mosque have that—but it means that the spirit is omnipresent in a way the believers are conscious of and accustomed to. Moreover, a bowl decorated with an elaborate calligraphic expression like, "Great is his majesty," relates to the entire material universe of those words both written and on the breath of individuals who repeat them.
Tawhid is the Islamic idea of oneness with god—that everything comes from god and goes back to him, in a cycle. God passes through artist in the very acts that they dedicate to him. Every thing they make, then, and each detail of its decoration, has its own meaning but also has meaning congruent with the universal. Every piece of art is significant in itself and has significance greater than itself, as a drop in the eternal confluence of god's spirit. The Islamic worldview is thus charged with meaning in a way foreign to most Westerners, for whom most details of the material world are indifferent or negligible.
Detail proceeds infinitely in Islamic art. The incense burner, for instance is only 13.4 cm (about 5.15 inches), yet it contains a world of repeated, interlocking design. The patterns are a combination of abstract flowers and leaves intertwined with geometric elements knotted among one another: stars with many blunted points, circles and ellipses in clusters, and so on. Such combinations of patterns and design elements are familiar in the West as they were copied into Renaissance design.
|Three Finials, each with a Name of God. Steel, incised and overlaid in gold and backed with silver.|
IRAN, probably early 18th century. 20.5 cm x 12 cm. x 0.3 cm. Private collection. Photo © Peter Savage, Visible Time, London
|Tile with Twelve-pointed Star. Ceramic mosaic with|
polychrome glaze. IRAN (Isfahan), 15th century.
Diameter, 62.23 cm. Seattle Art Museum,
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection.
The mosaic tile illustrates on a much more complicated level the use of positive and negative shapes along with interwoven natural and geometric designs. Within the twelve points, the artist has created a golden square composed of four soft triangles meeting in a star. The gold star sits at right angles to its turquoise twin, which makes us aware of the turquoise floral "pillows"—soft rectangles—formed behind the gold frame. At the points of the turquoise star rest white, lotus-like flowers with strong triangular centers. The elements of the gold border are also joined by tri-partite gold elements. The integration of the mathematical with the illusions created by the use of positive and negative space and of color juxtapositions—and all within a design so flowing, natural, and elegant—seems to me an exemplary expression of the Islamic aesthetic. Note, as well, how much occurs within a single tile that can be fit into a larger design: Just like its many patterns, the tile itself is related to many possible patterns that can extend forever beyond its borders.
|Bowl with a Hare. Incised, white slipped and painted pottery, Aghkand type.|
Northwest IRAN or the CAUCASUS, 12th-13th century. 11.5 cm high,
30 cm. diameter. The British Museum, London. ©The Trustees of the British Museum.
|Griffin. Cast bronze with engraved decoration. SPAIN (possibly|
Cordoba), 11th century. 107 x 32 x 82 cm.
Opera della Primaziale Pisana, Pisa (copy in exhibition).
Figurative and pictorial art goes in many directions, though. Beauty and Belief assures us that fantastical animals in the form of figurines are not uncommon in Islamic art. Belief in an invisible world leaves plenty of latitude for such. Where Greco-Roman tradition tends to cast creatures with the qualities of several animals as monsters, in Islamic tradition they tend to be guardian figures. A griffin—combined eagle and lion—long topped the cathedral in Pisa, Italy. When the building was restored, the figure was lowered and inspected, only then discovered to be covered with Arabic writing.
Another form of fantastical animal in Islamic art is the composite, an animal whose mass is composed of the forms of other animals, all fitted together to take the shape of the one. In a picture like the one shown, the exterior (pictured) animal proceeds in the scene as if it were just like any normal animal of its species, allowing the viewer to speculate about not only the reality status of the story, but of the creature within the story's borders. Such composite drawings are apparently thought to be in a class unto themselves and more metaphysical in spirit than representations like the happy hare or the beneficent griffin, suggesting the ideas of transiency and ultimate unity, or the unity of the invisible spiritual world.