Museums: The Met's Islamic Galleries

A Manuscript of Five Sections of a Qur'an, Morocco or Tunisia, 18th century
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; leather binding, stamped and gilded

Yesterday I saw the new Islamic galleries at the Met, and they were something.  Carpets, calligraphy, miniatures, architecture... you name it and it was there.  I was particularly interested by the amount of architecture they brought into the Met.  I guess if you have the space, you might as well bring in whole receiving rooms and install entire courtyards and prayer niches.  The small illuminated Qur'an above was definitely a favorite.

Chadar, India, Mughal period (1526-1858), ca. 1700
Warp:  cotton (single Z); weft: cotton (single Z), silk (single, no visible twist), metal thread
(strips of silver and gilt-silver wound in Z direction around a silk core); plain weave and tapestry weave

Always a sucker for little exhibits about curation, I spent some time with a great gallery showcasing the years (and incredible amounts of money, I'm sure) the Met spends taking care of their collection.  They also do a great deal with high-tech diagnostics of previous (almost always badly executed) attempts at curation; they use x-ray and infrared to determine how pottery has been altered, and the precision with which they dyed the backing for a multi-year conservation of a carpet is pretty astonishing.  For this chadar, or head covering, they used high performance liquid chromatography to determine the dyes used:  red and pink made from crushed cochineal beetles, yellow and orange from safflower and turmeric. 

The "Simonetti" Carpet, Egypt, Cairo, Mamluk period (1250-1517), ca. 1500
Wool (warp, weft, and pile); asymmetrically knotted pile

Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was astonished by how big the rugs were.  This is one medallion out of five that covers this gigantic carpet (this medallion is about my arm-span) that's a little over 600 years old.  It is, beyond being beautiful, apparently one of the most famous Mamluk carpets in the world.  There was a lot of discussion of warps and wefts on the didactics that I didn't entirely understand, but the overall effect of seeing one of these in a room full of them is stunning.  

Andhrayaki Ragini, Wife of Malkos Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Musical Modes) series
India, Himachal Pradesh, Bilaspur, ca. 1710
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

The Islamic exhibit also had two galleries full of South Asian Islamic art, which was consolation for the fact that almost the regular South Asian galleries at the Met were closed for reinstallation.  I was quite taken by the painting above, having been through a sandstorm in Jaipur; the inside of the house is so quiet compared to the women cowering from the clouds and lightning outside.

Head of Krishna:  Cartoon for a Mural of the Raslila, Painter: attributed to Sahib Ram
India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800, Ink and opaque watercolor on paper

Carrying along in the Jaipur vein, there was a lovely head of Krishna that was a study for a larger mural.  Hindu subject, but definitely executed by Muslim painter, Sahib Ram.  Sahib Ram was one of the most famous painters in 18th century Jaipur.  The lines of this image have small holes in them, allowing it to be transferred to a wall to create a later mural.  Apparently this image is based on a previous work by Sahib Ram that shows a dancing girl dressed as Krishna, which might explain some of its femininity.

Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru, Shanxi province, Yuan dynasty (1278-1364), ca. 1319
Water based pigment over a foundation of clay mixed with straw

The most impressive thing I saw yesterday, and having spent an entire day at the Met I only managed to cover about 10% of the collection, was the gigantic mural above.  I found it on my way to do research for my summer tour at the Asian (Chinese Buddhas and I are going to become quite familiar with one another in the next couple weeks).  Taking up an entire courtyard wall at the Met, this mural was once the eastern wall of the Lower Guangsheng Temple in the Chinese province of Shanxi.  The scale is stunning (the Met does scale well), but it raises some interesting questions about how it got to the Met.  I ran across this issue in the Islamic exhibit as well; a couple of galleries there are dedicated to a Met dig at Nishapur in Iran between 1935-40.  Apparently the Met had an agreement with the Iranian government to share half of what they found at Nishapur. But knowing how old the Met is, and how long they've been pulling their collection together... well, provenance is a subject for an entirely different blog post.

Woman Carried by Two Brahman Bulls, India (Uttar Pradesh, Kaushambi), 2000-1750 BC, bronze

I will end with one of the few pieces I managed to see from the regular South Asian collection.  They have real Indus River Valley Civilization seals at the Met (they're rather small and unimpressive unless you know what you're looking at) and a surprising number of female fertility figures (all over the cases, actually).  There wasn't much explanation of the piece above, but I found the female being carried by two Brahman bulls compelling.