Art offers window into Islam
- Art offers window into Islam
With works spanning more than a thousand years, a
museum exhibit aims to give visitors a new
appreciation for Muslim culture
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 30, 2007
In the early 1970s, the game of table tennis led to a
thawing in U.S.-Chinese relations. Curators of an
Islamic art exhibit at Chicago's Smart Museum hope art
can work the same magic, opening doors to greater
understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
"If you say Islam to most Americans, they say
terrorist," said exhibit co-curator Jonathan Bloom, a
professor of Islamic art and architecture. "We want to
show there's a different side to Islam. That it has a
very rich and long culture."
Few U.S. residents realize the contributions of Islam
to modern civilization, such as introducing Arabic
numerals and papermaking to Europe, said Sheila Blair,
exhibit co-curator and Bloom's wife.
Bloom and Blair, who are professors of Islamic art at
both Boston College and Virginia Commonwealth
University, hope the intricacy and beauty of the
displayed pieces will lead visitors to read more about
Islamic culture. The artifacts come from the David
Collection in Copenhagen, considered one of the finest
Islamic art collections in the world.
"In some way art creates an opening," Bloom said. "Our
main focus is that people enjoy it and want to learn
Blair added: "We wanted to affect their eyes, and that
would lead them to then use their brains."
Islamic art, as defined by the curators, encompasses
both secular and religious works in the Muslim world
from the early days of Islam in the 7th Century until
the influence of European colonialism began to be seen
in the 19th Century. It was produced from Spain and
West Africa to China and Indonesia.
Unlike familiar art forms like paintings on canvas or
sculpture, Islamic art leaned toward a smaller scale
and focused on everyday objects that were both useful
and beautifully decorated. Decoration was its most
distinctive aspect, found on everything from the
wooden pulpit in a mosque to a ceramic bowl at home.
Thus, the exhibit is named "Cosmophilia," or "the love
Objects on display include an ink and gold fragment
from a Koran manuscript; panels of tiles that could
have lined Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; a kaleidoscopic
17th Century door from Iran with several types of
wood, ivory and brass inlay; a 14th Century silk
tapestry roundel depicting an enthroned Mongol prince
surrounded by his courtiers; and a stunning Iranian
Barak Rosenshine, 70, a retired educational psychology
professor, was visiting Chicago from Urbana recently
when he dropped by the Smart Museum of Art at the
University of Chicago. He seemed mesmerized by the
painstaking work put into the 17th Century door.
"Given the prejudice against Muslims today, it's
wonderful to see this and reflect on the glory of that
culture," he said. "We're bombarded with the fear that
this country is going to be invaded by terrorists from
the Middle East. Nothing positive is coming out of the
Middle East. This is another side."
From the minute they walk into the exhibit, visitors
will grapple with their misconceptions. The first
section is devoted to artifacts that depict the human
"The one thing everyone seems to know about Islamic
art is that it doesn't have human figures," Bloom
said. "It's not true. Here, there's a whole section of
Because the Koran, the Muslim scripture, bans the
worship of idols, pictures of people are not found in
mosques and other religious settings. And though
conservatives frown on figurative art, other Muslims
enjoy depictions of people and animals in their
everyday lives, Bloom said.
The next section of the exhibit focuses on writing and
calligraphy. Bloom said the central miracle in Islam
is the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed to
the Prophet Muhammad. Reverence for God's word and
efforts to make it as physically beautiful as its
content made calligraphy the major art form throughout
the Muslim world, he said.
"For conservative religious types, calligraphy is the
noblest of the arts," Bloom said. "Manuscripts of the
Koran and objects of religious writing and secular
writing all are treated with great care."
Geometry is the next theme. Artists combined dots,
lines, polygons and circles to create endless
patterns. To the secular admirer, they presented the
artisan's cleverness; to the religious, the
never-ending patterns spoke of God's infiniteness,
Vegetation and decoration made up of vines, leaves and
flowers dominate the fourth section. It was an
ornament the Islamic world inherited from the
Mediterranean region and ancient Persia, but Muslims
developed it into the arabesque -- in which plants and
leaves grow according to geometry, not nature. The
final section includes pieces with multiple forms of
Dermatologist Juliana Chyu, 53, came to the exhibit
with members of her book club. The group has been
reading Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red,"
a tale centered on the world of book illustrators in
16th Century Istanbul. They figured the artifacts
would give them a window into the time period and
They found book illustrations similar to those
mentioned in Pamuk's novel. By the end, they felt they
understood Islamic culture a bit more. But what made
them feel closer to Muslims, they said, were two
objects at the end of the exhibit: a whimsical pitcher
in the shape of a rooster and a bronze incense burner
in the form of a lion. They read that smoke from the
incense burner came out of the lion's nose, and the
liquid in the ewer poured from the rooster's mouth.
"They're just like us," Chyu said. "They had humor in
their day-to-day living."
"Cosmophilia" runs through May 20 at the University of
Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave.,
Chicago. Call 773-702-0200 for more information.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
The Republic of Beauty, Melding West and East
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: March 30, 2007
Told often enough that the West and Islam are natural
enemies, we start to believe it, and assume it has
always been so. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art
argues otherwise in Venice and the Islamic World,
828-1797, a show that, with classic Met largesse,
recreates the spectacle of two different cultures
meeting in one fantastic city, where commerce and love
of beauty, those great levelers, unite them in a
At its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries the Most
Serene Republic of Venice was a giant, clamorous
Costco-on-the-Rialto. All the necessities of life and
most of the luxuries flowed into and through it from
every direction, and in bulk, filling open-air stalls
and salesrooms, piling up on piazzas.
Wood, metal, grain, furs and leathers from northern
Europe were shipped from Venetian docks to Near
Eastern and African cities, many formerly Christian
and now Muslim controlled. In return came
ultra-refined Islamic luxury goods: Turkish velvets,
Egyptian glass, Transcaucasian carpets and Syrian
brass work of a quality that matched and exceeded the
finest of Europe. Although much of this retail kept
moving westward into Italy and beyond, Venice skimmed
off the cream to adorn its churches and merchant
palaces. And so thoroughly did the city absorb the
cultural essences of these imports that it gained a
reputation for being the most un-European town in
Europe: a floating, glinting pipe dream of a
metropolis with a style and a story entirely its own.
Visually the Met show, organized by Stefano Carboni, a
curator in the department of Islamic art, presents
Venice exactly this way. At the same time it
acknowledges the tough entrepreneurial history running
under the dazzle and glow.
The most famous early transaction between Venice and
the Islamic world was not an exchange but a theft. In
A.D. 828 two Venetian traders stole the body of St.
Mark, the evangelist, from its tomb in Alexandria and
brought it home with them.
The pretext was piety: to remove a revered Christian
relic from Muslim hands. The rewards, however, were
practical. With a single act of derring-do, Venice
advertised its mercantile reach, reaffirmed its
religious loyalties and gained a pilgrimage-worthy
trophy saint to boot.
The accumulated chips would come in handy with the
Vatican. In future centuries, when Europe was
repeatedly forbidden by papal decree to do business
with Muslim powers, Venice went right ahead, and got
away with it, staying in touch with the larger world
on which it depended for economic survival (it had no
natural resources) and in which it took delight. That
world is sketched out in the shows opening gallery.
A 15th-century navigational chart of the eastern
Mediterranean defines its coordinates. A Venetian
merchants handwritten diary supplies some
on-the-ground data. (In Egypt, for example, the
merchant saw pyramids, giraffes and the interiors of
elegant Muslim homes.) Two paintings, one large and
one small, bring his experiences to life.
We see Venice itself in a 15th-century illustrated
manuscript of Marco Polos Travels. A birds-eye
view, it is a mirage of crenelated rooftops,
watered-silk lagoons and jumbo swans, with Marco Polo,
festive in pink, about to embark for Persia. This is a
storybook picture by an English artist who most likely
never laid eyes on the city.
The Syrian city of Damascus looks far less outlandish
in an oil painting done a century later of Venetian
ambassadors being received at an Islamic court. Minus
the minarets and towering turbans, this could be a
European scene. Islamic culture was by this point as
fully integrated into Venetian consciousness as Arabic
words were into the local Italian dialect.
In a sense this entire show is an essay on how that
integration played out in art. Sometimes the dynamic
is straightforward, a simple matter of placement. An
exquisitely illustrated 17th-century manuscript made
in Shiraz, in Persia, ends up in Venice. Fragments of
a painted Venetian glass beaker lie in a Jewish
cemetery in Syria. How? Why? Things traveled; thats
Frequently, though, cultures are overlaid. The
gold-patterned cloak worn by the Virgin in a
14th-century altarpiece by Stefano Veneziano is
modeled on sumptuous textiles then entering Venice
from Persia. This reference to a luxury import would
surely have tickled the paintings merchant-patron.
That the cloth depicted was foreign made it exotic
enough for heaven.
Elsewhere the play of influence is more complex. One
of the exhibitions oldest objects, a glass cup from
the treasury of St. Marks cathedral, has a
multiethnic pedigree. Its emerald-green bowl was
probably made by Islamic craftsmen in Egypt or Iran.
It then traveled to Constantinople, where a Byzantine
metalworker fitted it with a gilt-silver mount.
Finally this cup that might well have had secular
origins found a sacred home in Venice.
Original meanings were often lost in translation and
new ones acquired. An inlaid brass bucket designed as
a bath accessory in the Near East became a holy water
dispenser in Venice. Showy silk brocades used as
slipcovers in Turkey were tailored into ecclesiastical
robes in Venice.
Nor was Europe always on the receiving end of such
borrowings. Venetian glassmaking techniques and styles
were so scrupulously emulated by Islamic craftsmen
that it is often impossible to tell the source of
specific objects. And some of the most magnetic items
in the Mets exhibition were created by Western
artists expressly for Islamic customers.
One of the most celebrated is Gentile Bellinis 1480
oil portrait of the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II.
Commissioned during Bellinis two years in
Constantinople, it turns an easily sensationalized
subject into an empathetic likeness, idealizing but
naturalistic, an approach that would have its effect
on Islamic painting to come.
For sensationalism, however, there is another
portrait, an early-16th-century Italian print of
Emperor Suleyman in a multitiered crown created, at
fabulous expense, by Venetian goldsmiths. With its
Carmen Miranda superstructure the headpiece was all
but unwearable; and in the print the emperor, known as
the Magnificent, seems to shrink comically within it.
Yet symbolically it meant a lot to him. He considered
it an emblem of his sovereignty over all the
tiara-wearing rulers of Europe. And he affirmed this
entitlement, first by taking control of trade between
Islam and the West, then by initiating an Ottoman
conquest of the European territory.
As these threats became reality, the image of Muslims
in European art changed. When the Venetian artist
Vittore Carpaccio painted a scene of the stoning of
St. Stephen, he made all of the executioners Ottoman
Turks. That was in 1520. Nine years later Suleymans
army reached the gates of Vienna.
Venice, pragmatic as always, put business before
politics and tried to sustain a connection to the
Ottoman court. But by then Venetian trade was in
decline Portugal had found a route to India; Spain
had tapped into the New World and Europes
relationship with Islam had irrecoverably soured. One
of the shows final objects is a carved figurehead
decoration for a 17th-century Venetian battleship used
in war against the Ottomans. It depicts a Muslim,
bare-headed, half-naked, humiliated, in chains.
But even when old commercial ties failed, a bond of
beauty between Venice and the Islamic world held. So
long and intimately had the two mingled that Venetian
art had become, if only superficially, Islamic by
Its important to acknowledge the superficiality of
the interaction, to remember that one culture never
really became the other. The Met exhibition is a
European, not an Islamic, show. Despite the Islamic
material included we learn little about Islam or about
the Islamic meaning of objects or, even in a general
way, about Islamic views of the West.
Some future exhibition will flip this perspective
around. That is a show we need, and I look forward to
it. Perhaps Mr. Carboni, a scholar of depth and
breadth, will do it. In the meantime we have his Met
show to savor: historically pointed, visually
magnificent and a timely demonstration of differences
reconciled through art.