The Islamic world, identified by a shared faith, the language of the Qur’an, and a prevalent culture, is essentially vast and its geographical scale parallels the richness of the diversity of cultures embraced by Islam. While most of what we call “Islamic art” is not religious, it is intrinsically shaped by the spirit of Islamic culture. It is a culture that holds many cultures. And almost every piece of its art tells the story of more than one place, and different, historical cultural threads at work.
The exhibition “Spirit and Matter: Masterpieces from the Keir Collection of Islamic art” (on show at the Dallas Museum of Art September 18, 2015 - July 31, 2016) is an introduction to the nature of Islamic art, using a selection of just over fifty pieces. Each one of these pieces expresses a plurality, a story of multiplicity, the interaction and coming together of diverse factors to form a visual whole with a new integral aesthetic. While differences between the artistic styles from the various parts of the Islamic world are apparent, a pervasive connecting thread with a potent adherence to Islamic culture is recognizable. A link between present and past is often discernible. Looking closely at these factors underlines the contribution of different peoples, different cultures, in the making of what we call “Islamic art.”
Unity in Diversity
The concept “Spirit and Matter” highlights a unifying dynamic that is present throughout Islamic art. The concept was chosen to speak of a constant drive that is at work in the transformation of materials. Different substances, from earthenware to silk, were transformed with the same spirit that is clearly an expression of a way of seeing the world, a way of being. A particular rhythm, structure, balance, harmony is found in Islamic art, reflecting a particular conception of the universe. The principle of unity in diversity is a constant, and the stylistic connection between a piece produced in Islamic Spain and a piece produced in South East Asia, which makes the term “Islamic art” apply to both (however accurate or inaccurate that term), in reality, speaks of that spirit.
The pieces selected for “Spirit and Matter” illustrate the multilayered nature of Islamic art. Motifs are not restricted to one material or another. The same design can be found in works on paper, metalwork or carpets. A visual language with multiple interpretation is spoken by different materials across regions and periods. And often, beauty spreads beyond the apparent areas of the pieces to the not readily visible parts. This aesthetic concept mirrors the governing Islamic principle of zaahir and batin (the visible and the invisible realms). An example in the exhibition is a North African lantern from 12-13th century (most likely from Andalusian Spain or Morocco). The lantern, with its architectural form is designed to stand on its lion-shaped feet and is decorated with perforated arabesque design and calligraphy that would have created atmospheric shadows, while its base is decorated with a complex geometric strap-work design, the kind of which is found in manuscript illumination, especially in the carpet pages of manuscripts. It is very attractive, but not part of its displayed beauty (Plate 1).
The Homburg Ewer
The interplay of calligraphy floral or arabesque design and figural elements is often seen in the decoration of a single object. The “Homberg Ewer,” named after a previous collector, is one of the most famous pieces of inlaid metalwork from the Medieval period. It is dated (640 AH/ 1242 CE) and signed by the master craftsman, Ahmed al-Dhaki al-Mawsili. The rich decoration of this brass ewer includes both calligraphy, and figural scenes. The inscription on the shoulder, written in plaited Kufic, expresses blessings, while the figural elements combine courtly Islamic scenes with depictions of Christian saints or dignitaries. It is not clear whether the ewer was commissioned by a Christian or a Muslim patron nor whether it was made for use in a Muslim or Christian context, but the ewer clearly mirrors the fabric of the social mix in which it was made (Plate 2).
A page with two miniature paintings (one on each side) of medicinal herbs, was originally part of a manuscript, an adaptation of De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides (Plate 3). The page is a copy from the 13th century, but carries a direct connection with the 1st century text. Such pages are a testimony of the transfer of knowledge from one era to another and to the interconnectedness of history and people. The translation of philosophical and scientific Greek texts which took place especially from the 9th century with the establishment of Bayt al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom, a research and educational institute founded by Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma’mun in Baghdad), influenced the intellectual endeavors of 11th century Spain in centers such as Toledo, when such translations (which included new annotations and new interpretations) were re-translated into Latin. These texts played a role in the transfer of knowledge to western lands and were part of the foundation to the Renaissance. While the 13th century page in “Spirit and Matter” is now separated from the original manuscript, the multiple realities that contributed to its making are apparent in form and content. And the interconnectedness of the various stages of the journey of knowledge is remarkably traceable.
Pottery and Calligraphy
Pluralism is certainly at play in calligraphy which is at the core of Islamic art. Extensive forms of writing evolved and sometimes, several styles can be seen in a single object. From the basic Naskhi (cursive) and Kufic, many other scripts emerged. Within Kufic, for example, there are many styles: the square, the foliated, the floriated, to mention only a few. The numerous styles, as well as the various shapes of the letters themselves, that multiplicity and fluidity of form, celebrates a fundamental source, a central essence. Typical of Samanid pottery, decorated with calligraphy, a 10th century bowl in “Spirit and Matter” contains a phrase calligraphed around the cavity of the bowl (Plate 4). The shafts of some letters are elongated, pointing towards the center. The center itself is marked by dot. The dot, shaped by a single motion of the tip of the pen, is the beginning of all writing. A rotation and sense of rhythmic motion is brought by both the shape of the bowl itself and its inscription which progresses around the rim in circular motion. The bowl becomes no less than a metaphor for the universe, and the central dot a source of creation; the letters are different forms of the same substance. The principle of unity itself can only be a confirmation of multiplicity: various elements must exist to be brought into unity.
The Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewer and Lusterware
At the heart of the “Spirit and Matter” exhibition is a late 10th- early 11th century rock crystal ewer, a rare Fatimid treasure, one of only seven in the world (Plate 5). Its carving is a tour de force of craftsmanship, and the piece holds a wonder of optics through refraction and reflection. Through the intrinsic property of the material and the ingenuity of carving the ewer becomes a mirror of unity and diversity, of pluralism within oneness. Looking closely one thing holds many. Each tiny roundel, for example, displays a small refraction of one of the cheetahs carved in the body. The characteristics of this piece embody the spirit of multiplicity in unity. In the context of the exhibition, that intrinsic richness which is not readily visible, is brought to the fore by looking closely with a magnifying device (a large virtual video screen) offering a feast to the eyes.
Perhaps one of the most tangible examples which reflects plurality in the history of Islamic art is the migratory journey of the luster technique. The pigment of luster itself was already known in ancient times when it was used to decorate glass vessels. The first use of luster on pottery took place in Iraq, in the town of Basra, around the eighth-ninth century. This sophisticated and luxurious technique, which consisted of painting the body of the vessel with metal oxides, was a significant contribution by the Islamic world to the field of ceramics. Although distinct styles associated with each period and place of its journey (in Islamic art) are recognizable, some characteristics survived throughout. From Basra, luster moved to Egypt and Cairo became an important center of its production, reaching a new height in the Fatimid period (969-1171 CE).
While elements known in Iraqi pieces, such as the festooned rim of the vessel, lingered, a new style was forged and a strong Fatimid style distinguished itself. It displayed naturalistic, fluid lines of drawing, and the painterly quality of Fatimid luster pottery is remarkable. Some of the subjects of luster-painted pottery of Fatimid Egypt illustrate the plurality of Egyptian society, such as a bowl with a Coptic priest (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). And, at times, the artistic style displays connections with other trends (Plate 6). From Egypt, luster travelled to Syria and Persia, where other distinct styles emerged, attributable to Raqqa and Kashan, respectively. Kashan was a particularly important center and some of the pieces made there display the use of dense decoration that imbued the vessel with a rich depth. Luster technique found its way to Spain where Islamic and Christian pictorial languages fused. And it is from Spain that luster reached the rest of the world. If a potter is making luster-painted pottery in Dallas, his or her work is connected to that of the potter who first used the pigment in 8th-9th century Basra.
The technique was so coveted and precious that it was passed from generation to generation among specific families, and we did not have much information about the technique itself until the 13th century (as detailed in the treatise of Abu-l’ Qasim of Kashan). The technique is very complex, delicate and costly, requiring two firings in the kiln. A myriad of hues is achieved as a result of variations in the recipe of the pigment—an increase of copper content results in a reddish hue while a high tin content produces a yellow tinge. The many hues in luster—from a golden yellow, to a reddish maroon, a greenish yellow to a mustard yellow etc., are themselves reflections of multiplicity.
The multiplicity in each of these Islamic art pieces is a mirror of the multiplicity of the Islamic world, a characteristic which applies to humanity at large. Multiplicity is at play all around us: everything we look at has different components at work that are historically, socially and culturally diverse. Pluralism is an expression of the interconnectedness of everything. Looking for that multiplicity around us is a powerful reminder that the world can never be one thing or the other. A recognition of multiplicity which makes the whole is in fact a confirmation of the identity of each part.
Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir is Senior Advisor for Islamic art at the Dallas Museum of Art and Distinguished Professor of Islamic Art at the O’Donnell Institute of Art History, the University of Texas at Dallas. She is also the author of “The Blue Manuscript,” a work of fiction. Dr. Al Khemir’s lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art, in September 2015, included a performance by the Ismaili Muslim Youth Choir of Dallas.