Category Archives: Islamic Art

Mats Matter

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Islamic and Indian paintings at the Freer|Sackler are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that the pressure is off! Over the last few months, the paper lab of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has rehoused more than one thousand individual folios into new window mats. The window mats relieve the paintings’ fragile surfaces from any pressure when stacked in storage boxes—critical for their long-term preservation. Plus, the paintings just look better that way.

Every painting had to be individually measured and the measurements entered into a spreadsheet. The data was sent in batches to an outside contractor. In return, every couple of weeks we would receive 200–250 newly cut mats. We then had to remove the paintings from their old folders, add new hinges, and attach them into the new mats. We make our hinges in-house from Japanese paper, and each hinge is cut to size to fit the particular folio. Since at least two hinges are used to hold each painting in the window mat, we went through more than 2,024 individual hinges! Although one thousand new mats were cut, 1,012 individual folios were rehoused, since some are presented in double window mats (a single mat with two window openings).

Old, insubstantial folders at left, and new, clean and sturdy mats on the right.

Old, fragile mats on the left; new, clean, and sturdy mats on the right.

One hundred sixty-eight folios had already been placed in mats in-house for various rotations, exhibitions, and loans, bringing the grand total of matted folios to 1,180. But that’s not everything. We still have approximately one hundred Islamic and Indian paintings left to move into mats in the future. Then, on to other collections!

The project was funded by a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund grant. It could not have happened without the untiring work of Amanda Malkin (Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in Islamic painting conservation and hinger extraordinaire), Stacy Bowe (mat-measuring maniac and intern), and Emily Cummins (pre-program intern).

Friday Fave: Nasta‘liq

Folios of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615); Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12 (1020 AH); borders signed by Muhammad Hadi, Iran, Safavid period, dated 1755–56 (1169 AH); ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1931.20 and F1942.15b

Folios of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani (d. 1615); Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12 (1020 AH); borders signed by Muhammad Hadi, Iran, Safavid period, dated 1755–56 (1169 AH); ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1931.20 and F1942.15b

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

To prepare for the exhibition Nasta‘liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy, I pored over the Freer|Sackler’s large collection of related calligraphy, searching for the one piece that would embody the main idea I wanted to convey: that the visual aspects of the nasta’liq script are equal to, if not more important than, its meaning. After a long search, it was actually two pieces that caught my attention—two folios mounted together as a pair, in an album made in mid-eighteenth-century Iran and acquired in 1909 by Tsar Nicholas II. This impressive volume is now known as the St. Petersburg Album.

It doesn’t matter whether you can read the poetic verses or not. The contrast between the deep black, graceful lines of calligraphy and the shimmering illuminations and margins is dazzling. Both pages present the same quatrain and both were copied by the same calligrapher, the celebrated Mir Imad al-Hasani, in 1611, four years before his death. Penned on exquisite paper—marbled in pink or decorated with gold floral designs—these two folios represent the ultimate examples of a series exercise: the calligrapher practiced copying a verse until he created an example that he considered perfect. The two calligraphies may look identical at first glance, but there is one subtle difference. In fact, the shape of a single word distinguishes them. On the third line, hich (“nothing”) is compressed in the folio on the right, whereas it shows an elongated ligature between the ha and ya letters in the folio at left.

This minor distinction, which a viewer can only identify through long and sedulous contemplation, embodies what I consider to be the quintessence of the visual power of nasta’liq. This feature certainly did not escape the illuminator, Muhammad Hadi. In 1755, more than 140 years after Mir Imad completed these calligraphies, Muhammad Hadi mounted them as a facing pair—though they were not initially supposed to be shown and seen together—and adorned them with lavish gilding. For me, this decorative element simply underscores the perfect beauty of the written lines.

See the Nasta’liq exhibition and learn about Persian art and culture at our Nowruz celebration this Saturday, March 7.

Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.

Going Green

Folio from a Khamsa by Nizami, Bahram Gur in the turquoise-blue pavilion on Wednesday; Safavid period Iran, 1548

Folio from a Khamsa by Nizami, Bahram Gur in the turquoise-blue pavilion on Wednesday;
Safavid Iran, 1548, F1908.275

Those fine folks at Pantone, “the world’s experts on color,” have selected the color of the year for 2013. And the winner is … emerald green, or, as it’s known by designers all over the world, 17-5641.

There are so many shades of green and each one would be welcome today, on a drizzly, gray afternoon in DC. Rather than wait for spring, I decided to search the collections and look for some of my favorite green objects. The range is vast: from the robe of a sixteenth-century Persian youth to the grass and trees in a Thomas Dewing landscape to the aged patina of a bronze Chinese vessel, and, of course, the folio above from the Khamsa (or Quintet), a collection of five poems by the poet Nizami.

The Khamsa ranks among the great masterpieces of Persian literature. It tells the story of a prince and seven princesses, each from a different land, and each depicted in a colored pavilion. The turquoise pavilion is the setting for Wednesday’s tale, a romantic poem recited by the princess from Magrib. But delving deeper, the poem offers a glimpse into Islamic mysticism (Sufism), with each day of the week representing the journey of the soul. Here, at stage five, the soul is satisfied, on its journey to become wholly purified and at one with god.

Check out other scenes from this tale, including a visit from the Indian princess in the black pavilion.

All Eyes on Venus

Folio from Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini, F1954.34

With this evening’s transit of Venus keeping everyone looking at the skies, we thought we’d tempt you with something on the screen. This folio from a 15th-century copy of the Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) shows two figures. On top is Venus, called al-zuhara in Arabic. In Islamic astronomical and astrological treatises, she is usually shown as a seated (cross-legged) female playing a musical instrument, typically a lute. The planet’s name comes from the Arabic for “to shine” or “to illuminate” because of Venus’s exceptional brilliance in the sky. Below Venus is the sphere of the sun.

The Aja’ib is a two-volume work on cosmology and geography, originally written by al-Qazwini in 13th-century Iraq. The text is divided into two sections, one devoted to heavenly bodies and the other to natural history and terrestrial beings. It was one of the most popular medieval manuscripts and many illustrated copies have survived. Like most scientific works, they are profusely illustrated with schematic but lively images inserted into the body of the text.

Learn more about our collection of Arts of the Islamic World.

Here’s some more information on the transit of Venus from the Smithsonian “Surprising Science” blog.