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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 12   16-31 December 2011

Treasures of Islamic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum

Professor A. R. Momin

Museums, international exhibitions on Islamic art and culture and global auction houses are playing an important role in the growing worldwide appreciation of the grandeur of Islamic art. All the world’s major museums have Islamic art galleries, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world. The famed Louvre museum in Paris has one of the finest and largest collections of Islamic art in the world. In 2004 the museum announced plans for a $60 million glass expansion to house its Islamic collection, consisting of more than 10,000 art objects, previously exhibited in underground corridors. Most of these objects once belonged to the French kings or came from European churches, cathedrals and monasteries where they were used to contain the relics of Christian saints. In July 2005 Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire, donated $20 million to the museum to fund the construction of a wing for its vast collection of Islamic art.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a magnificent collection of more than 10,000 Islamic artefacts. The museum opened the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, built with a donation of £5.4 million by a Saudi business family, in July 2006. The gallery has a collection of more than 4,000 rare Islamic artefacts, including the 16th century Ardabil carpet, the world’s earliest on record, commissioned by the Shah of Iran, a 1000-year-old rock crystal ewer from Fatimid Egypt, and a 16th century lamp from the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. A unique museum, Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus in Cordoba, Spain, established by the well-known French intellectual and politician Roger Garaudy, has been designed to project and highlight Moorish Spain’s composite legacy through state-of-the-art audiovisual and representational technology.

Nasser David Khalili, an Iranian-born Jewish billionaire and collector of art objects settled in Britain, has the largest and one of the most priceless private collections of Islamic art objects from around the world. The collection has more than 25,000 Islamic artefacts valued at more than $1.6 billion. The catalogues of the Khalili collection run into 27 volumes, of which 17 have already been published. Selected Islamic art objects from the Khalili collection have been exhibited in several countries, including Switzerland, Spain, Israel, Abu Dhabi, Britain, USA and Australia.

In recent years exhibitions of Islamic art have become immensely popular across Europe and North America. A fabulous exhibition on “Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797” was organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York at Pallazo Ducale in Venice between July 28 and November 28, 2007. The exhibition was aimed at highlighting the positive outcome of Venice’s extensive interaction and exchange with the Islamic world over nearly a millennium from the 9th to the 18th century. During this period, a wide range of artefacts, luxury goods and art works from East to West, and sometimes from West to East, through commercial, diplomatic and cultural exchanges. Thousands of Islamic art objects, which are found in museums and in private collections in Europe and the US, had initially passed through Venice. Nearly 200 Islamic artefacts and art objects from public and private collections from many parts of Europe and the US were on display at the exhibition. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris organised an exhibition on “The Golden Age of Arab Sciences” in March 2006. More than 200,000 visitors from across the country feasted their eyes on illustrations and objects that focused on the amazing and wide-ranging contributions made by Muslim scientists, physicians, engineers and architects from the 8th to the 14th century.

Thousands of people attended the grand opening of an Islamic exhibition, IslamExpo 2008, at Alexander Place in London on July 11, 2008. the four-day event, opened by London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, was aimed at spreading awareness about Islamic civilization, clearing myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings about Islam and building bridges between Muslims in the UK and the wider society. The exhibition included lectures, symposia, screening of films and debates.

International auction houses now play an important role in the growing global salience of Islamic art. A 1000-year old ewer, carved from flawless rock crystal and decorated with cheetahs and link chains, was sold by Christie’s in London for more than £3 million on October 7, 2008. The ewer from the Fatimid royal treasury in Egypt was earlier mistaken for a French claret jug and valued at £100-200. Christie’s described the ewer as “one of the rarest and most desirable works of art from the Islamic world”.

The Metropolitan Museum

The history of the Metropolitan Museum in New York goes back to 1866, when a group of Americans decided to create a “national institution and gallery of art” to bring art and art education to the American people. The Museum was initially set up in Paris and later shifted to New York.

The Metropolitan Museum houses nearly 12,000 Islamic art objects—one of the largest collections in the world--that were made in 20 countries from around the globe. A major portion of Islamic art objects at the museum was given as a bequest of Edward C. Moore in 1891. Since then the collection has grown through gifts, bequests and purchases. Some of the art objects were obtained through archaeological excavations in Nishapur, Iran, sponsored by the museum in 1935-39 and in 1947. The museum’s Islamic art objects have been shown, as part of travelling exhibitions, in France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Britain, Australia, Canada, Denmark, China, Japan, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Taiwan and South Korea.

New Islamic Art Galleries

On November 1, 2011 the Metropolitan Museum opened 15 completely renovated and expanded new galleries on Islamic art. The galleries, which have been constructed at the cost of $50 million and are spread over an area of 19,000 square feet, are named Art of the Arab Lands, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. The art objects displayed at the galleries encompass thirteen centuries of the Islamic era and belong to diverse regions of the world, including Spain, North Africa, southern Iran, Italy, China, Egypt, Syria, Libya and India. The objects encompass a variety of art forms, ranging from painting and sculpture to architecture and scientific instruments, and include fragments of some of the earliest manuscripts of the Quran, wood carvings, ceramics, jewellery, metalwork, carpets, calligraphy, carpets, lamps, vases, textiles, tiles, silverware and ornate weaponry, including swords encrusted with rubies, gold and silver. The art objects, more than 12,000 in number, date from the seventh to the 19th century.

The art objects displayed in the new galleries show how Muslim artists, artisans and craftsmen used a variety of materials and media and adapted them to their own needs and tastes and how they appropriated and synthesized features and patterns from different sources.

The Metropolitan Museum imported a group of highly skilled artisans from Fez, Morocco to construct a Maghrebi-Andalusian style courtyard for the new galleries. It recruited craftsmen who specialized in woodwork from Cairo to make special doors, and glass blowers from Brooklyn to make mosque lamps based on classical Islamic designs. One of the highlights of the new galleries is a fully reconstructed reception hall of the residence of a wealthy man in 18th century Damascus. Its marble flooring is inlaid with exquisite geometric designs and its wooden walls are inscribed with calligraphy from the Quran.

The new art galleries house fragments from some of the earliest and exquisitely written copies of the Quran. There is a rare and extremely beautiful 10th century “Blue Quran” from Tunisia, written in gold ink on parchment dyed with indigo.

The galleries display five folios from what is believed to be the largest copy of the Quran, written in Uzbekistan in the 15th century. According to legend, the calligrapher of this Quran had earlier written a smaller copy for the ruler of the Timurid dynasty, but it did not find favour with him because of the size. The calligrapher then wrote another, much larger copy, which was so big that it had to be carried to the court on a wheelbarrow.

One of the priceless exhibits in the new galleries is a 16th century Iranian carpet, which belonged to Peter the Great and then to the Habsburg emperor Leopold I.

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