Islamic Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Islamic art has recently been the focus of a number of major exhibitions throughout North America, including Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts at the Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore. The Cummer Museum is embracing this trend by presenting an exhibition that will help illuminate Islamic and Middle Eastern history, culture, religious beliefs, and their contribution to global society.
Exceptional objects from the Islamic art collection belonging to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston will make a final stop in Jacksonville before returning to their home institution. Ink, Silk, and Gold: Islamic Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is a selection of works never before grouped together in a dedicated exhibition. The splendor and richness of Islamic art comes alive through more than fifty objects produced in an astonishing array of media: silver inlaid metalwork, gilded and enamel glass, manuscripts inscribed with gold, brocaded velvets, luster-painted ceramics, textiles woven with precious metals, and more.
The objects highlighted in this exhibition not only cover a wide variety of artistic traditions, they also span centuries and vast territories. Ranging from the 8th to the 21st century, the works originated in an Islamic world that spreads from Spain and Morocco in the West to India and Indonesia in the East, with recent works created in the art capital of New York, and other American cities.
Because of their diversity, the objects on display will seem at first to have little in common with one another: a brightly colored coat, an ornate tombstone, a handmade book containing a sacred text. They were neither made in the same place nor at the same time. And yet, they are linked by the religion of Islam, which has drawn together distant communities of believers since it emerged in the 7th century. These far flung Islamic societies
share not only a faith but also a common, though richly varied, culture.
Works of art are among the most tangible manifestations of Islamic culture. We can easily grasp that the tiles used to decorate a mosque or the painted embellishments that enhance a copy of the Qur’an (a sacred text that is the cornerstone of Islam) belong to an Islamic cultural world. But this can also be said of objects made for secular purposes – candlesticks, ceramic bowls, silk garments – because Islamic culture is much more than the religion of Islam. It encompasses a vast range of knowledge traditions, social practices, and aesthetic conventions.
In a modern museum setting, the challenge is to use our imagination to understand what these objects meant to those who originally made, wore, owned, or altered them. Many — although admired for their beauty and refinement of form — had a practical purpose. Such is the case with a mosque lamp that
bears six handles that would have been used to suspend it from the ceiling. Light would have come from a burning wick floating in a container of oil and water that was inserted in the lamp’s mouth. Another example is a woman’s munisak. With its intricate pattern and rich fabric, this coat was worn during important rituals or even serving as a cover at the owner’s funeral. One of the most impressive pieces in the exhibition is a sheet from the grandest Qur’an manuscript produced in the western part of the Islamic world, and one of the largest parchment Qur’ans ever made (the sheets are today scattered in several museums across the world). The complete manuscript, with more than 1,000 folios, would have been too bulky to be
moved around easily, and would have therefore remained permanently in the mosque for which it was made, functioning both as a manuscript for reading aloud and a powerful statement of wealth by the patron who commissioned it. In the Islamic world, the fact that these objects served a functional purpose enhanced rather than reduced their value.
Another way to explore Islamic art is to look at the materials out of which objects are made, and the associations they carry. One of the most widespread mediums for nearly all Islamic works on paper is black ink. Made by artists and calligraphers from lampblack, gallnuts, or mineral compounds, it was applied with a brush or pen. For a viewer with roots in an Islamic society, the presence of ink might lead him to look beyond the beauty of calligraphy, and think of sacred associations since religious texts were transcribed in ink. Color, shape, and texture, also enhance the meaning of an object or act as visual elements that make words and images more legible for the viewer. Qur’ans often have illuminated roundels between verses, colored dots marking the vowels or points of vocalization, and other illumination in the margin such as instructions for prostration to help worshipers in their prayers.
Written by Nelda Damiano, Curator at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens