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The Beauty of Islam’s Worlds

The Metropolitan Museum’s magnificent collection of Islamic art was, until recently, displayed as objects from a single religious culture that had swept across borders to claim nearly 25 percent of the world’s population. Distinctions of national identity and history were largely ignored. On Nov. 1, however, 1,200 works from the collection were returned to new, brilliantly designed rooms grouped by geography: Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia. The arrangement is intelligent — Islam marched both east and west out of Arabia over centuries — and illuminating. Islam was both absorbed and adapted by conquered peoples, especially in respect to art and architecture. Islam never insisted on the homogeneity of Roman Catholicism, for example. The new installation is so beautifully designed that you can easily wander back and forth between geography and time, examining influences and marveling at differences. The rooms are never so large as to overwhelm, and the lighting, especially on the magnificent carpets, is stunning. There is a warmth and intimacy to the rooms that both welcome and seduce you. Of course there are commonalities across centuries and borders. First and most emphatic is the language of the Quran; but there are words from love poems, histories of battles and even proverbs, too. Calligraphy is everywhere. The Quran is never illustrated, so the distinctiveness of calligraphy is as important as the illuminations in Catholic books of hours. And it appears on every surface: paper, textile, stone, wood and ceramics. Islam is also a religion of symbols. Figurative representation is mostly discouraged or entirely forbidden, so a limited number of visual cues including flowers, geometric shapes, fantastical animals, stars are endlessly reworked and rethought. All of these appear in the magnificent carpets, both large and small, from the Met’s spectacular collection. Imperial rugs glow in the mellow light, smaller ones reveal fascinating histories. (A Persian carpet represents an aerial view of the classic, four-part arrangement of a Persian garden; another shows a courtier leading his bound captives after a successful raid into Georgia.) There are architectural wonders: A 14th-century Mihrab, or prayer niche, is made of blue and white tiles with little brown florets in shades of brown cascading down the tall arch like shooting stars. The Patti Cadby Birch Court reproduces a medieval Moroccan interior court hand carved by craftsmen from Fez. A fountain framed in glazed tile brings the sounds of falling water to what was, and is, a space for reflection. Ceramics, carefully chosen as representative samples to make a curative point, are gorgeous and even unexpected. Turquoise and blue glaze glows over black undercoating in some 15th-century Iranian pieces. Blue and white chargers and bowls look Chinese but are 18th-century Iranian knockoffs that were pushed onto a heated European market. (How little things have changed.) Other themes recur. Horses appear stylized in carpets or realistically in Persian and Indian paintings.White turbans from India, Persia and Afghanistan 500 years ago are the same shape as today’s. Cruelty and conquest appear along side beauty and tranquillity. Women are represented in servile roles to men at leisure. And the encompassing, tolerant side of Islam is seen in a tiny Hebrew Bible from Muslim Seville and a painting of a Hindu goddess commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Surprisingly, there is no art from Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. Perhaps that will come with new acquisitions. The New Galleries for the Art of Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia are on the Metropolitan Museum’s second floor. Many of the objects are small; most, even the largest, reveal intimate details through alert and leisurely viewing. There are benches throughout the galleries to encourage a long stay. The Museum is open every day but Monday. Visit www.metmuseum.org for details.

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