Category Archives: Islamic Art

Friday Fave: Brass Basin

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

Basin; probably Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid period (1171–1250), 1247–49; brass inlaid with silver; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art, F1955.10

To me, one of the most exquisite objects in the Freer|Sackler is a brass basin inlaid with silver, created during the reign of the last Ayyubid sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub (1205–49). The intricately designed basin must have taken a variety of artisans many hours to complete.

When I look at the basin, I am first drawn to the etching in the silver sheets and the black niello (a mixture of copper, silver, and lead), featuring both Islamic and Christian motifs. The etchings serve as a way to refine and provide further pictorial details. The Al-Salih Ayyub basin demonstrates the etcher’s excellence in drawing human figures and robes. The polo players riding horses in the middle register are brought to life with just a few simple, rapid strokes. This technique helps to transmit the character of the figures or animals, while displaying the etcher’s high competence and self-confidence in his trade.

Another technical feature of this basin that amazes me is the five medallions distributed along the top register, representing scenes from the life of Christ. The abbreviated spaces within which these scenes exist must have forced the craftsmen to rework images from standard iconographic manuscript sources. For instance, the Annunciation demonstrates how the craftsmen needed to simplify the narrative to include only the most essential human figures, Gabriel and Mary, without additional details such as the dove or rays of light typically portrayed in Syriac lectionaries.

If you’re interested in the basin, check out more high-resolution images of it on Open F|S, the complete digitized collections of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Surprisingly, you’ll find a shot of the exterior of the base stamped with a medallion of a European coat of arms. This was added in the eighteenth century by a member of the House of Arenberg, one of the most influential and wealthy noble families of the Habsburg Netherlands. It’s interesting to think about the life of objects beyond the era in which they were made.

Zooming In: Crystal Clear

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

This is the third and final post in Amanda Malkin’s series exploring geometric patterns in Islamic paintings, focusing on the possible use of optical devices by the manuscript illustrator. Previous posts discussed Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings and Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator.

The first true magnifying lens—an instrument with a handle created for the purpose of magnification—was developed in 1250 CE by Roger Bacon in England. However, a large group of archaeologists and scientists believes that ancient cultures were experimenting with rudimentary optical devices, made from rock crystal, many centuries before Bacon.

Rock crystals with plano-convex surfaces dating from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE have been found in Egypt, Greece, and Mediterranean cities. Many of these rock crystals were of optical quality, according to the definition put forth by Dominic Ingemark in his article “A Rare Rock-Crystal Object from Pompeii.” That is, the rock crystal is acceptably transparent and homogeneous with at least one surface that is curved with minor surface irregularities. Additionally, the crystal must be able to form a reasonable image.

There is an interesting, ongoing debate regarding the function of these highly valuable rock crystals. Some theories suggest they were used as decoration on furniture, game pieces, or medical instruments. Ancient sources describe bi-convex lenses—basically, glass or rock-crystal balls—that were used to cauterize wounds or remove tissue. These sources do not mention the use of plano-convex lenses as optical devices, and this absence is convincing evidence, for some, that they were not used as such.

However, other scholars argue that the craftsmen who made the “lens-shaped objects,” as they are sometimes called, would have had to use an optical device themselves to do such precise work. The minute, archaic decoration on engraved gems, coins, cylinder seals, intricate jewelry, and of course, manuscript illustrations also suggest that lenses were present and used. The quality and precision of the microscopic ornamentation seem inconceivable without the use of magnifying lenses.

A controversial theory suggests that, instead of using lenses, men with myopia, or nearsightedness, were sought out and trained as craftsmen. Their distorted, magnified vision could have been exploited for creative purposes. The hypothesis, based on thoughtful and clearly investigated theories regarding genetics and a possibly high occurrence of myopia in early civilizations, remains an over-reaching argument. It seems unrealistic to believe that, even with extensive training, men with myopia could have become the majority of master engravers. Their optic handicap would have hindered their work as apprentices: Publications state that master engravers traditionally dealt with the raw stone and carried out the intricate work, while their assistants did the grinding and polishing.

The lack of written historical evidence confirming the function of these somewhat mysterious objects has made this research incredibly intriguing. Although the results are inconclusive, it is certain that as more plano-convex rock crystals are unearthed, more knowledge and information will follow.

Women in the Persian Book of Kings

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the role of women in Persian poetry, storytelling, and painting.

With Women’s History Month recently behind us, I began to think about the significance of women in one of the most important works in Persian literature: Firdawsi’s epic of the Persian kings, the Shahnama. Did women have a prominent place in these tales, and how were they portrayed? Are queens represented alongside the kings?

In the first half of the Shahnama—which focuses on Iran’s mythical past, particularly Persian legends—many women play central roles as the mothers of kings and warriors, the heroes in the epic poem. Dr. Dick Davis writes that surprisingly there are “over fifty women … named in the poem … and a number of them play a significant and sometimes primary role in the narrative.” One such woman is Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, who gives birth to one of the greatest Shahnama heroes, Rostam. She is presented as a free agent and engineers her own life by defying male authority, even that of her father. In the painting above, Rudaba lets down her long hair so that Zal, her future lover and husband, can scale the building and join her on the roof. (He chooses, however, to use a lasso to climb the wall.)

Rudaba is independent and takes matters into her own hands, and by no means is she an exception. A whole host of women in the Shahnama actively pursue their desires and take initiative, and they are mostly presented in a positive light for doing so. Moreover, there is hardly any immediate social backlash. Instead, a woman making choices based on desire is glamorized and presented as entirely understandable—something almost unheard of in traditional society.

The women in the Shahnama are not just celebrated for their role as mothers. Like Rudaba, they are known for their beauty, intelligence, independence, and fierceness. The epic poem features women as diplomatic envoys and queens. This gives them a degree of political power and, as Davis has written, has allowed the women “to confront the world on their own terms.”

Despite the action-packed and colorful representations of these works, the strong women in the Shahnama sometimes take a backseat to their male contemporaries. Letting the stories of kings and heroes overshadow those of powerful queens and wise women risks diminishing the complexity of these works, which, after all, is what makes them so exquisite.

Source: Davis, D., “Women in Shahnameh” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, edited by Sara S. Poor and Jane K. Schulman (Palgrave MacMillan: 2007), 67-90.

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.