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Islamic art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Michael Burke
[[email protected]]

The MMA Collections

Where is Islamic art in New York? Well, one place is the Metropolitan Museum of Art which devotes space to a large collection of Islamic art objects.

  • These objects come from an Islamic civilization which stretched from Spain to India.
  • They include several primary means of expression:-- calligraphy, illumined manuscripts, metalwork, and sculpture among many other forms.

Islamic Art in Context

Many of the objects in the MMA originate from contexts specific to the variety if Islamic civilization.

  • Some are portable because of the nomadic lifestyle of the early Muslims and Arabs who were often on the go to hunt, and fight and trade.
  • Many objects are from gardens, which were cooler than buildings.

Islamic Art - Purposes and Styles

Islamic art is meticulously fabricated and designed. It had functional and utilitarian purposes.

  • Religion was an and is an important influence and patron behind Islamic art and most Islamic art derives many motifs from the Muslim religion.
  • The most basic tendency of Islamic art is to cover the surfaces of the objects with overall patterns. It often places the subject with in a network of appealing and dense ornaments. Many of the focal points of these ornaments include arabesques, inscriptions, as well as pictures of trees, animals and flowers, or figures. There is an infinity of variations on these themes:- such as the concept of flowers in which each little stylized blossom symbolizes the current state of culture and the evolving nature of the artist craftsman. Another style is arabesque that employs never-ending progressions of blossoms, stems and leaves that sometimes substitute for angelic faces, or animal or dragon masks for flowers.

This web page examines the following types of Islamic Art in the MMA collections.


The supreme art for Muslims is calligraphy because they believe this writing has a "sacramental" character since it conveys the word of God (in the Qu'ran).

  • One form is the Kufic script that employs shafts of high letters which gradually and considerably became elongated because of aesthetic considerations. This elongation was a natural development because the Qu'ran in the central and eastern Islamic world was no longer written on broad pages but rather on the vertical book format.
  • Other styles of Arabic script include the Maghribi style that partially blurred words, which are triangular and with the letters very extended.
  • The Nasta'lia style that describes a hanging script so that some of the letters drop below the line.
  • The Thuluth script found in various places such as mosque walls, rugs, and on arms and armor.

The centers of calligraphy in the early Islamic age were Mecca, Medina, Kufa, and Basrah. The Kufic script probably came from Kufa but, in fact, there is no sufficient manuscript urvival to distinguish the four branches of calligraphy by town. Thus, these four branches are grouped together in the angular style in contradistinction to the more curvilinear styles which are named individually. The Metropolitan Museum of Art contains several examples of Qu'ranic calligraphy

Quranic calligraphy

Illuminated Manuscripts

Another area of Islamic art, with obvious links to calligraphy, is the category of illuminated manuscripts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection includes manuscripts such as:

  • A Funeral Procession
  • Jonah and the Whale
  • An Eavesdropper
  • A Pair of Eagles
  • The Portrait of a Sufi

An Example

birdsOne leaf from an illuminated manuscript called the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp was painted by the Sultan Muhammad in 1522 for the first Safavid ruler of Iran, Sha' Isma'il (r. 1501-24) and his son Prince (later Shah) Tahmasp (r. 1524-76). This leaf is one from one of the grandest of royal copies of the Shahnama at Tabriz. The title of this leaf is the Feast of Sadeh. The legend behind this leaf is that Shah Hunshang, one of Iran's legendary rulers, sighted a hideous apparition, threw a rock at it, but the rock missed and struck a boulder, causing sparks. These sparks impressed Hushang who initiated fire worship.

He assembled his courtiers and their animals, discussed the use of fire, and used fire for cooking to celebrate the feast known as Sadeh. An allusion to this story is shown at the top of the picture where a comical bear is hurling a rock at a snow leopard.

This image is of the concourse of the birds.

Physical Objects

Another category of Islamic art consists of physical object - this also is found in abundance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since Muslims view the creation of figures as sacrilege because only God can create, (according to the Hadith - the "traditions" of the Prophet), there are rarely any figural images at least not in the mosques.

  • Pottery: In the MMA, there are bowls, (one is an earthenware bowl that is glazed and stain painted made in ninth century Iran). Luster-painting was first employed in ninth century Iran with the polychrome style being dominant in the ninth century and the monochrome style being dominant in the tenth century. These bowls often bear words in Kufic script. There are bowls from Nishapur, Egypt, and Iran from the late twelfth century to the early thirteenth century. There are also ewers from eleventh century Iran, Khorasan.
  • Ceramics: Tiles from Syria in the twelfth century that hold indecipherable Kufic script, luster-painted tiles used to decorate mosques and tombs from Iran (Kashan) in the Khanid period dated March 1308, and dishes all hold their place in the MMA also.
  • Textiles: Woven items play an unique role in cultural and social history. Textiles are one of the chief means of artistic expression of a culture and the most influential vehicle for the transmission of artistic ideas and styles. Texatiles move from national boundaries due to social and political upheaval as well as due to economic and diplomatic circumstances. Textiles were and are a vital economic component of Islamic society. Tiraz cloth production was most important during the Abbasid and Fatimid periods; and cloth production became the official responsibility of a major government department. The issuing of Tiraz became a royal prerogative; (the word tiraz is Persian for embroidery). Tiraz inscriptions often included the ruler's name and title and the date may be inscribed.
  • Carpets: In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are carpets from tenth century Yemen, and also from Spain, in the Nasrid period of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Ikatarchine was the technique that formed the pattern before weaving by dying and wrapping warp yarns methodically; this style created the Yemeni textiles from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries. Other rugs from the MMA include a prayer rug from Turkey in the Ottoman period of the late sixteenth century , the Emperor's carpet from Iran of the Safavid period, probably Herat in the mid-sixteenth century, and a Polonaise carpet.
  • Wall Hangings: There was a wall hanging technique called the kalamkari, which consisted of woven cotton patterned by pen with mordants and resist mediums in India, which is responsible for a carpet from India in the Madras region, perhaps Pulicat around 1640-50 and whose borders were made in the eighteenth century. This carpet consists of cotton, mordants, resist mediums, and dyes.
This is a picture is of one of the most famous Mamluk carpets which is called the "Simonetti " carpet from Egypt (Cairo) in the late fifteenth century or the early sixteenth century. This carpet, named after its owner, consists of wool pile and foundation, and is circa one hundred metrical knots per square inch. This carpet has five medallions instead of the more customary one or three and has a slightly brighter and more varied palette than is usual for its type. Mamluk carpets are surprisingly rich in appearance, considering the relatively coarse weave and limited color range. The overall effect of the carpet is that of a shimmering mosaic or colors.


  • Glassware: Other objects of that are of interest in the Metropolitan Museum inlcude a Mamluk glass bottle from Syria or Egypt (fourteenth century). It shows influence by China as seen by a decoration of a phoenix (feng-huang) adorning the bottle.
  • Objet's d'Art: There is an incense burner in a feline form made by the Seljuks in the twelfth century that represents a guardian. This burner is an example of the sophisticated later stage of Seljuk art with its subtle variations and exquisitely proportioned features.

Architectural Features

The decoration which is so much a part of Islamic art found expression not only in documents and objects, but also on buildings. The MMA collection documents this in a number of ways.

  • The Damascus Room: This is really post-medieval. Created in the eighteenth century, this was the room of Nur Ad-Din from Syria. The room, complete with fountain, reveals the detailed craftsmanship of Islamic architects, wood carvers, and ceramists.
  • a mihrabA Mihrab: A Mihrab is the niche in a mosque which points towards Mecca. The MMA exaqmple has a composite body and is glazed and cut as seen in the picture above. The decoration adorning it is executed with great skill and devotion. Madrasa Imami in Isafahan around 1354 created this mihrab and composed it of a mosiac of small glazed tiles fitted together to form various geometric and floral patterns and inscriptions. There is an inscriptional frieze in muhaqqaq script, containing Sura IX: 14-22 from the Qu'ran that runs from bottom right to bottom left; an second inscription in Kufic script, with some sayings of the Prophet, borders the pointed arch of the script: and a third inscription, in cursive, is set in a frame at the center of the niche.
  • The Dado Panel: This is a marble mosiac from Egypt during the Mamluk period, in the first half of the fifteenth century. The red, white, yellow, and black marble forms a mosaic pattern based on five and ten pointed stars. This was the style of wall decorations in the interior of mosques in the early fifteenth century.

Islamic Art Links

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