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Art of the Islamic World

A new installation travels through a richly diverse material culture
Meghan E. Strong, Adjunct Professor, Case Western Reserve University
September 2, 2021
Fragment of a Band or Border, late 600s–800s. Egypt, Umayyad period (661–750) or Abbasid period (750–1258). 1982.110

The reinstallation of the Islamic art galleries challenges the preconception that objects produced in the Islamic world are necessarily religious, or that they are always produced by Muslim artisans. Featuring works produced from the 700s through the 1800s, the core of the CMA’s collection, the new display moves linearly through this vast timeframe with thematic pauses that focus on ceramics, metalware, and sacred art. The installation makes clear the chronological and geographic breadth of Islamic art and focuses on the diversity of the material culture produced during this time. The galleries include an abundance of secular artwork, in addition to works with Christian motifs and styles incorporated from multiple cultures. 

One of the earliest pieces in the gallery is a textile fragment depicting a lively lion hunt. From a chronological standpoint, it is appropriate to begin with this work, as it was likely produced between the late 600s and the early 800s, immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the early stages of Islamic art production. More significantly, however, this small fragment highlights several key themes that are touched on repeatedly throughout the gallery: the prominence of imagery related to courtly indulgences, including hunting; the integration of the human form into decoration; and the adoption and adaptation of ancient motifs into a new Islamic artistic vernacular. The lion hunt, for example, was a common motif in Assyrian and Sasanian art, and the act of hunting itself maintained its elite status for centuries after. Indeed, scenes of hunting are scattered throughout the galleries, and the inclusion of the Matchlock Musket demonstrates that items of hunting weaponry were works of art in their own right.

Matchlock Musket c. 1750. Turkey, Ottoman period (1299–1922). Wood, steel, brass, mother-of-pearl inlay, and leather; overall: 103.5 cm; barrel: 68.3 cm. Gift of J. H. Wade, 1916.828

The vast geographic breadth of Islamic art is addressed in the display case for ceramic ware. Here, the visitor can appreciate the wide array of vessel shapes, decorative motifs, and technological innovations developed within the Islamic world. The objects also speak to the contributions made by potters at production centers in Syria, Iraq (Samarra and Basra), Persia (Nishapur), and Central Asia (Samarkand), where pottery emerged as a prominent Islamic art form in the 800s. 

The Wade Cup with Animated Script 1200– 1221. Iran, Seljuq period (1037–1194). Brass inlaid with silver; h. 11.5 cm, diam. 16.1 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1944.485

It is a common misconception that the use of the human form is banned in Islamic art. In secular art, depictions of human and animal figures abound. This is perhaps no better attested than in the Wade Cup. The new display of this object, arguably the most important within the museum’s Islamic art collection, celebrates the inscription that runs around the top of the vessel. The Wade Cup has a niche of its own in the gallery, and the script band has been reproduced in enlarged form along the niche’s walls. This band of text is written in animated script developed in northeast Iran or Afghanistan in the mid-1100s. Interlocking human and animal forms in dynamic poses form the letters and accents in this unique style of calligraphy, the highest form of Islamic art. Though calligraphy is traditionally associated with works on paper, the inscription on the Wade Cup is a superb example of this art form translated into metalwork. 

Large Dish with Artichokes c. 1535–40. Turkey, Iznik, Ottoman period (1299–1922). Fritware with underglaze-painted design; diam. 36.4 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1995.17

Overall, the new installation immerses the viewer in the expansive, multicultural Islamic world and challenges us to consider an important question: what is Islamic art? It incorporates architecture, such as the recent acquisitions of a white marble column capital and base from Madinat al-Zahra, and metalwork, including a feline-shaped incense burner, as well as ceramics, enameled glass, calligraphic works, miniature paintings, musical instruments, weaponry, and several textiles, including the magnificent display of an Ottoman carpet. In that sense, the overall display reflects the current discourse on the definition of Islamic art, suggesting that one single definition is neither possible nor appropriate. Instead, the new installation highlights the richness and complexity of the Islamic world and the breadth of the artwork that expresses that diversity.