Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum

April 3, 2005 to September 4, 2005

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has one of the most important and renowned Islamic art collections in the world. Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum included over 100 of the V&A’s finest masterpieces, many exhibited for the first time outside the museum. They conveyed the richness of Islamic art on a scale unrivaled for its quality and depth outside the Middle East. This extraordinary loan was on view at the Kimbell from April 3 to September 4, 2005.

Commented Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum: “The refurbishing of the V&A’s Islamic galleries has provided a unique opportunity to bring a broad selection of the museum’s most beautiful and important works to the United States, where they are being shown only at the Kimbell and the National Gallery, Washington (where the exhibition ran July 18, 2004–February 6, 2005). The result is a spectacular panorama of an exotic and still underappreciated civilization that has had long-standing artistic and political relations with Europe and the rest of the world, each culture greatly enriching the other.”

“Individually the works are outstanding masterpieces; together, there could be no better introduction to the sublime beauty and pervasive spirituality of Islamic art,” Mr. Mohammed Jameel, president of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, stated. “I am delighted that this exhibition of the V&A’s great Islamic treasures will be on display at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before returning to the new Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the V&A. Our family has a keen interest in world cultures and in promoting understanding among them, and a commitment to increasing the understanding of the Islamic world. It gives us great pleasure to be able to help these two great museums mount this exhibition.”

Commented Mark Jones, director of the V&A, “This is a wonderful opportunity to share our superb Islamic collection and increase awareness of Islam’s rich cultural heritage.” The objects in this exhibition, which ranged from the intimate to the architectural, were chosen for their outstanding quality, historical importance, and visual impact. Yet they also illustrated a grand narrative within the artistic culture of one of the world’s great civilizations. The exhibition highlighted a number of recurrent themes within the long development of Islamic art from the 8th to the 19th centuries: the key role of Arabic script and calligraphy in its emergence and flowering; the poetic background to much secular iconography; variations in the use of images across different regions and periods; the development of mathematics and science in the service of religion and in the creation of elaborate geometric designs; the central role of the Islamic faith, and reflections of other religions; dynastic patronage in courtly art; artistic interaction with other cultures; and the prestige of Islamic art in medieval and early modern Europe.

The rapid rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D. is one of the most remarkable events in history. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, the Islamic faith spread east and west from Arabia, launching an empire. By the mid-8th century, the lands under Islamic rule stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. This vast empire, with its capitals in Syria and Iraq, was the birthplace of Islamic art. By the 10th century, the political unity of the first Islamic empire had dissolved, but the tenets underlying it endured. They formed the basis of the various Islamic states that governed roughly the same territory until the early 20th century, when secular regimes began to be established.

The formation of Islamic art owed much to Islam as a religion, but it also reflected a sophisticated secular culture. “Islamic art” is therefore a broad cultural term rather than one based on an exclusively religious definition. It is the art of both palace and mosque.

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum was organized in five sections: The Written Word explored the widespread influence of Arabic calligraphy, regarded as the noblest form of Islamic art because of its association with the Qur’an—the Word of God spoken in the Arabic language. A system of proportions governing the forms of the letters and their relationship to each other was developed as early as the 8th century, lending consistency to the art of Islamic calligraphy. Nothing is more characteristic of Islamic art than the use of inscriptions in Arabic, which embellish Islamic buildings and numerous works of art.

Courts and Courtiers: Art and Power featured secular works of art, often depicting human and animal figures, made for royal palaces and courtly residences. In Islamic societies, ruling families formed dynasties of caliphs, sultans, and other monarchs who formulated artistic styles to publicize their power. Rival courts produced rival styles, as the contrast between Ottoman and Safavid art in the 16th and 17th centuries demonstrates. After their conquest of Egypt and Syria in 1517, the Ottoman sultans ruled a great empire from Istanbul in Turkey, while the lands to the East, principally Iran, were united under the rule of the Safavid shahs. The hostility between these two great powers ensured that their art developed in very different ways. Human and animal figures often appear on Safavid tiles and textiles, but are completely absent from Ottoman examples. In avoiding the public display of human and animal figures, the Ottomans sought to present themselves as the leading advocates of Islamic orthodoxy, a status they could claim as the guardians of the most sacred Muslim sites in Mecca and Medina. The Safavid court may have embraced figural imagery in deliberate defiance of the Ottomans. Works made for places of worship, both Muslim and Christian, were examined in Mosques, Shrines, and Churches, including a 20-foot high pulpit (minbar) made for a mosque in Cairo in the 15th century. The section also included works produced by Islamic artists for Christian churches. The Qur’an teaches respect for Jews and Christians as “peoples of the book,” or believers in the word of God. Christians and Jews in the Middle East were so assimilated into Islamic culture that the works of art made for them are often indistinguishable from those made for Muslims. The impact of Islamic rulers on artistic style was considered in Ottoman Patronage. The patronage of powerful rulers could have a dramatic effect. In the 1460s or 70s, the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror began to invest in the production of ceramics for his court, which led to a steep rise in the quality of pottery available on the market.

In the small town of Iznik in northwest Turkey, craftsmen had been producing unremarkable earthenwares that were pale imitations of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. By the end of the 15th century, however, Iznik potters were producing fritware, a white ceramic made from finely ground pebbles and sand that resembled porcelain. This new material allowed potters to make vessels of such remarkable size and refinement that they are considered one of the highest achievements of Islamic art. The intense interaction between the Middle East, China, and Europe was the subject of the final section, Artistic Exchange. Until the 16th century, the Middle East was at the center of the known world and the hub of a vast international trading system. Far-reaching trade routes meant that artists and craftsmen of the region competed with the best artisans in the world.

Chinese ceramics especially spurred creativity. The arrival of Chinese porcelains in the Middle East in the 8th century led to the Islamic invention of novel forms of pottery, such as lusterware, in which designs are painted using a metal compound that is reduced to a thin layer of gleaming metal during firing. These new wares were then traded with Europe, where potters gradually adopted Middle Eastern ceramic techniques. This trade fostered similar tastes in disparate lands. Blue-and-white ceramics, inlaid metalwares, silk velvets, and work in ivory and wood also reflect the circulation of artistic ideas between the different cultures of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The V&A is the world’s preeminent museum of applied and decorative arts. It was given its present name in 1899, in honor of Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, but its origins go back to the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. That event—the first international exposition ever held—revealed the need for art collections that could teach British manufacturers the principles of good design, and the museum was founded the following year for that purpose.

The V&A’s early acquisitions were much influenced by the architect and designer Owen Jones (1809–1874), who wrote The Grammar of Ornament (1856), a compendium of ornamental design from around the world. Jones particularly admired the harmonious integration of decoration and form he found in Islamic art, and his work encouraged the museum’s founders to purchase fine examples from the start. During the same period, private individuals in Britain began to acquire examples of Islamic ceramics, silks, carpets, metalwork, glass, manuscripts, paintings, and other media for their own pleasure. Over the next 150 years, the V&A assembled an Islamic collection of extraordinary depth by acquiring a number of these private holdings, highlights of which were presented in Palace and Mosque.

Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Victoria and Albert Museum was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Tim Stanley, senior curator of the Middle Eastern collections at the V&A, was exhibition curator and the principal author of the book that accompanied the exhibition, Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art from the Middle East (V&A Publications, 2004), which is available in the Museum Shop.

The international tour of this exhibition was made possible by the generosity of Mohammed Jameel, the benefactor of the V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Abdul Latif Jameel, the late founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, and his wife Nafisa. It was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support for Palace and Mosque at the Kimbell Art Museum was provided by American Airlines and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Palace and Mosque’s first venue was the National Gallery of Art, Washington (July 18, 2004–February 6, 2005). Following its showing at the Kimbell Art Museum, the exhibition was on view at the Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo (October 22–December 11, 2005) and Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, United Kingdom (January 14–April 16, 2006).

Admission prices at the Kimbell Art Museum were $6 for adults, $4 for seniors age 60 and over and students with ID, and $2 for children between 6 and 11. Children under 6 were free, as were museum members. An Acoustiguide audio tour was available for $4 ($3 for museum members). Admission prices were half-off on Tuesdays (not applicable to the Acoustiguide audio tour).