New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opens new galleries for the art of the Arab Lands
NEW YORK, N.Y.- The grand reopening of a suite of 15 dramatic New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia took place at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 1. The greatly enlarged, freshly conceived, and completely renovated galleries house the Metropolitan’s renowned collection of Islamic art—one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of this material in the world. Design features within the new space highlight both the diversity and the interconnectedness of the numerous cultures represented here; multiple entryways allow visitors to approach the new galleries—and the art displayed within—from different perspectives.
“The opening of these extraordinary new galleries underscores our mission as an encyclopedic museum and provides a unique opportunity to convey the grandeur and complexity of Islamic art and culture at a pivotal moment in world history,” stated Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. “In sequence, the 15 new galleries trace the course of Islamic civilization, over a span of 13 centuries, from the Middle East to North Africa, Europe, and Central and South Asia. This new geographic orientation signals a revised perspective on this important collection, recognizing that the monumentality of Islam did not create a single, monolithic artistic expression, but instead connected a vast geographic expanse through centuries of change and cultural influence. The public will find galleries filled with magnificent works of art that evoke the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the vast cross-fertilization of ideas and artistic forms that has shaped our shared cultural heritage.”
Sheila Canby, the Patti Cadby Birch Curator in Charge of the Department of Islamic Art, said: “Although our galleries represent a vast territory over a long period of time, the diverse artworks shown here are nonetheless unified in several distinctive ways. Primary among these is the extensive use of Arabic script, which resulted in exceptional examples of calligraphy—often in conventional media, such as metalwork or architectural elements—and virtuosic achievements in the arts of the book. A profound love of embellishment is often expressed through intricately interlaced, complex geometric forms that are most familiar to us in textiles, woodwork, and tilework. There are many examples of luxury materials, due to royal patronage. And technical expertise of the highest level is always evident, no matter what the medium. Because the objects in our galleries are primarily secular in nature, they can easily be appreciated both for their innate utility and for their astonishing beauty, whatever the viewer’s background may be.”
The collection comprises more than 12,000 works of art drawn from an area that extends from Spain in the west to India in the east. Some 1,200 works of art in all media are on view at any time, representing all major regions and artistic styles, from the seventh century onward. Important loans from the Hispanic Society of America will also be shown. (Displays of textiles and works on paper will change frequently due to the sensitivity of these materials to light.)
As part of the reinstallation of the galleries, a team of conservators and scientists has engaged in an extensive program of conservation of the major objects within the collection, from the Museum’s remarkable collection of manuscripts to fragile glass objects and rare and precious carpets.
Highlights of the Museum’s collection include: the sumptuously ornamented Damascus Room, built in 1707, and one of the finest examples of Syrian homes of the wealthy during the Ottoman period; glass, metalwork, and ceramics from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; some of the finest classical carpets in existence from the 16th and 17th centuries, including the recently restored, celebrated Emperor’s Carpet, an exceptional classical Persian carpet of the 16th century that was presented to Hapsburg Emperor Leopold I by Peter the Great of Russia; notable early and medieval Qur’ans; pages from the sumptuous copy of the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, created for Shah Tahmasp (1514–76) of Iran, and outstanding royal miniatures from the courts of the Arab World, Ottoman Turkey, Persia, and Mughal India, including paintings from the imperial “Shah Jahan Album,” compiled for the builder of the Taj Mahal; and architectural elements including a 14th-century mihrab, or prayer niche, from Isfahan decorated with glazed ceramic tiles, which would have served in a Muslim house of worship to indicate the direction to Mecca.
Gallery 450: Patti Cadby Birch Gallery—the introductory gallery— showcases masterpieces from across the collection in the major media employed in the art of the Islamic world: pottery, carpets and textiles, jeweled arts, calligraphy, painting, and architectural elements. The styles, themes, and motifs that visitors encounter here will recur in successive rooms, thereby connecting distinct cultures. This gallery is one of three rooms named in honor of Patti Cadby Birch. The others are galleries 456 and 457.
Gallery 451: Arab Lands and Iran in the Umayyad and Abbasid Periods (7th–13th centuries) explores early Islamic art, focusing primarily on the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), whose capital was Damascus, and the Early Abbasid dynasty (750–ca. 900), which was based in Baghdad. Also highlighted are pre-Islamic traditions from ancient Rome, Byzantium, and Persia that evolved into Islamic art under the Umayyads. During the Early Abbasid period, the melding of influences from as far away as China and India resulted in a golden age of creativity. Among the many treasures on view is an outstanding selection of manuscripts and early Qur’an pages in Kufic script. These are displayed alongside textiles from all reaches of the empire, from Yemen to Egypt, as well as ceramics, including luster-painted pottery; wooden doors in the beveled style from Samarra in Iraq; metalwork; and glass.
Gallery 452: Nishapur and the Sabz Pushan Site presents materials that were excavated by the Iranian Expedition of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in several digs from 1935 to 1947. The most outstanding objects are a group of architectural decorations from an excavated mound known locally as Tepe Sabz Pushan (“The Green-covered Mound”). New scholarship has made it possible to reconstruct with accuracy the walls of a small room, now called the Sabz Pushan Room, decorated with finds from the site including tall carved plaster dadoes, wall painting fragments, and stucco elements called muqarnas, the stalactite decoration characteristic of many Islamic buildings.
Gallery 453: Iran and Central Asia (9th–13th centuries) focus on the far-reaching impact of the Abassid style in the eastern Islamic world. Included are the artistic achievements of the 11th-century Ghaznavid and 12th-century Seljuq Sultans, whose patronage ushered in a brilliant and inventive period of art and culture in Iran and Central Asia. Among the highlights are luster-painted and other ceramic vessels from 12th-century Kashan and Rayy, a pair of life-size statues of palace guards, and an early 13th-century monumental bronze incense burner in the shape of a lion.
Gallery 454: Egypt and Syria (10th–16th centuries) features a comprehensive display of the three major periods in the medieval history of Cairo: the Fatimid (909–1171), Ayyubid (1169–1260), and Mamluk (1250–1517). Known for its history, rich culture, and diverse population, Cairo has played a vital role in the artistic life of the Islamic world for centuries. Under Mamluk rule, Cairo became one of the wealthiest cities in the Near East and a hub of artistic and intellectual activity in the Arab world. On display are an outstanding selection of woodwork, gold jewelry from the Fatimid period, textiles, splendid inlaid metalwork and enameled glass from the Mamluk period, and luster-painted ceramics. This gallery also offers another point of entry into the whole suite, from the adjoining Orientalism gallery, which is part of the adjacent 19th- and Early 20th-Century European Paintings and Sculpture Galleries.
Gallery 456: Patti Cadby Birch Court, based on Moroccan late medieval design, is under construction by craftsmen from Fez as an intimate interior court. Adjacent to the Patti Cadby Birch Gallery for art from Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean, this area of repose and quiet reflection underscore the living heritage of the Islamic world. Here, original Nasrid columns will define the patio space, and dadoes of custom-made glazed tiles in a traditional pattern will frame a fountain that bring the sound of falling water to the galleries.
Gallery 457: Patti Cadby Birch Gallery—Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean (8th–19th centuries) showcases the spread of Arab influence to the west through the rich material culture of Al-Andalus, highlighting the arts of the 10th-century caliphate of Cordoba and the 14th- and 15th-century Nasrid emirate of Granada. The reciprocal creative exchanges between southern Islamic courts and northern Christian- and Judaeo-Spanish areas are shown. Highlights on display includes important loans from the Hispanic Society of America.
Gallery 458: The Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery, known for its focused presentations drawn primarily from the Museum’s holdings and occasionally supplemented by important loans, has been enlarged and better situated. The gallery provides the opportunity to present the depth of the Museum’s Islamic collection while offering views into innovative, stimulating, and unexplored aspects of the field. The inaugural exhibition in the new location focuses on collectors who have helped shape the Museum’s collection.
Galleries 459 and 460: Koç Family Galleries—Carpets, Textiles and the Greater Ottoman World and Arts of the Ottoman Court (14th–20th centuries)—presents the art of the Ottoman world in a series of grand spaces of over 3,500 square feet with 24-foot ceilings, showing the rich diversity of courtly, provincial, and village art. The new galleries provide a comprehensive overview of the multi-layered nature of Ottoman patronage for the first time. Among the strengths of the collection are works from the imperial workshops of Istanbul under the reign of Sultan Süleyman, and the Museum’s unparalleled collection of Ottoman carpets, textiles, and arms and armor.
Gallery 461: The Damascus Room (18th century) (previously known as the Nur al-Din Room) is a reception chamber from an upper-class home in Damascus and an important early 18th-century example of domestic Ottoman architecture. A high point of the new installation is the repositioning of the room within its proper regional context, off the gallery dedicated to the arts of Ottoman Istanbul, underscoring the influence of the imperial Ottoman arts on those of the provinces. An extensive scholarly examination and conservation effort has resulted in a more accurate reinstallation of the room, closer to its original layout.
Galleries 455 and 462: Iran and Central Asia (13th–16th centuries) and Safavid and Later Iran (16th–20th centuries) are two major galleries that provide a chronological overview of the art of the Persian world, while underscoring its many connections with other cultures.
Gallery 455 displays material from the 13th to the early 16th century under the Mongol, Turkmen, Timurid, and Uzbek dynasties, as these arts came to flourish in such royal capitals as Tabriz, Samarkand, and Herat. Among the highlights are
manuscript pages from 15th-century Herat, such as painted folios from the famous Assembly of the Birds or Mantiq-al-Tair, and other examples of the arts of the book.
Gallery 462, the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Gallery, features masterpieces created in Tabriz and Isfahan under the imperial Safavid dynasty in the 16th and 17th centuries and its successors. Highlights include the celebrated mid-16th-century Emperor’s Carpet and the famous illustrations to the Book of Kings or Shahnama, displayed in specially designed cases for seated visitors to view.
Galleries 463 and 464: Mughal South Asia (16th–19th centuries) and Later South Asia (16th-20th centuries) unify the rich holdings of the Islamic and Asian departments in grand adjoining spaces, thus presenting for the first time a historically cohesive and visually spectacular overview of the many facets of the art of the region. The two galleries—which have over 20-foot-high ceilings and over 4,000 square feet of space—will highlight the artistic and cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent and its wider connections with the Islamic world, Europe, and beyond.
The first major space displays works of art from the Sultanate, Mughal, and Deccan courts in a chronological and regional sweep from ca. 1450 to the 19th century. Masterpieces include celebrated folios from the Emperor’s Album, jades and jewels of the Mughal period, and fine examples of Deccan court arts. The second gallery, which offers an independent entrance into the larger suite of galleries, presents vibrant examples of Jain, Rajput, Pahari, and “Company” school painting from the 16th to the 19th century, as well as textiles and decorative arts, showcasing the artistic variety of the Indian courts.