The Muslim Empire once stretched from the Atlantic Ocean, in the west, to India and the borders of China, in the east. Over many centuries, the artistic traditions of these different regions merged into an identifiably Islamic style. One thousand years of Islamic art is now on display in Washington.
The Palace and Mosque exhibit at the National Gallery of Art features a wide range of visual expression, from paintings and textiles, to carpets, metalwork and glass.
"We have a variety of objects, from the minbar [pulpit] of Sultan Qait Bay in Egypt to an Uzbekistan funerary marker, to objects that would populate a palace such as rugs and Iznic tiles from Turkey," said Gallery spokeswoman Annabeth Guthrie. She says the items on display represent the length and breadth of the Muslim Empire, from Spain to China. She considers a 13th century mosque lamp from Syria, and two large carpets made in Iran in the 15th and 16th centuries among the most intriguing in the exhibit.
"I think people are amazed by the size and condition of the two carpets. They're very large and very old," said Ms. Guthrie. "I think people see some objects, like the mosque lamps, and they think they are vases, but when you actually read the label, you understand the function of these finely crafted pieces."
Islamic craftsmen gave as much attention to function as to form, since art was meant to be a part of daily life.
Other works attracting and surprising visitors are a gaily colored tile mosaic of a court picnic from 17th century Iran and a unique church vestment depicting the Crucifixion, made in Isfahan for the Christian community living there under Muslim Rule.
Man: "They [Muslim rulers] gave money to the Catholic Church to put art and things in the Church! I didn't expect that. That was the most unexpected thing I've seen. It opened my eyes. I always thought they were against the Christians." Woman: "There's some misconception that there isn't reproduction of people and animal in Islamic art. That's really not true. We learned that the Quran didn't have pictures, but when they were making decorative arts, you can see pictures of animals, people and such."
The Palace and Mosque exhibit is a collection of 120 unique and precious items on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
"We've been given $9 million by a Saudi citizen called Mohammed Jameel, a big businessman around the world. That gives us enough money to completely re-do our gallery, but it also includes an element to pay for a touring exhibition," said Tim Stanley, the senior curator for the museum's Middle East Gallery. "Because he's a Muslim from the Middle East, he's very proud of Islamic art, and felt that more people should know about it."
The Palace and Mosque exhibit reflects a sophisticated culture that grew up in the courts of the Islamic empires and dynasties, as they spread across Europe and Asia, from the 8th to the 18th centuries. Mr. Stanley says Islamic art evolved through the interaction between the Muslim society and the cultures that came under its influence.
"Part of our exhibition is about the history of ceramics and how China was so important to the Middle East," explained Mr. Stanley. "Not only that, but the Middle Eastern ideas were exported to China so the Chinese could make porcelain that was meant to the Middle Eastern market. They were doing it back in the 9th century. When the British were living in mud huts, the Middle Easterners and the Chinese were sending each other ideas about fine ceramics."
Most items in this exhibit exemplify what Tim Stanley calls 'unity in variety,' bringing many brilliant unlike parts together to create an even more brilliant whole. One of his favorite items is a 450-year-old table from the Ottoman Empire.
"It's a table made of this huge and very beautiful polygonal tile, which is colored while, blue, turquoise and red. The legs of the table and the sides are made of wood and faced with ebony and this very rich inlay in ivory and in mother of pearl. It's a unique piece," he said. "I like it because it got this sort of fantastic clash of colors, which these days, we'd probably be too scared to have it made.
"But when you are the greatest ruler in the world, as Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent was in the 16th century, then your court can produce what it likes," continued Mr. Stanley. "And actually the effect is fantastic."
Calligraphy, applied to every conceivable surface, is the most revered of Islamic art forms. Educators touring the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art say they are amazed by the power of language in what they're seeing.
"It gives it more meaning when you know what the words mean," said a visitor. "We were just saying how wonderful it would be to be able to show students the relationship between different cultures. You see the Chinese influence and even the European influence and we can make those connections to what we teach them about the ancient world," added another one. "Maybe we should teach more of it in our schools. After all, every little kid knows everything about ancient Egypt, why don't they know about the Islamic Egypt?" questioned a Gallery goer.
Curators say a successful art exhibit leaves visitors with as many questions as answers. The Palace and Mosque collection will be fueling questions for the next 6 months, as Washington residents and visitors come to the National Gallery of Art to discover the art of Islam.