One of the most productive periods in the history of the region from Iran to Anatolia (in modern Turkey) corresponds to the rule of the Seljuqs and their immediate successors, from 1038 to 1307. The Seljuqs were aTurkic dynasty of Central Asian nomadic origin that established a vast, but decentralized and relatively short-lived, empire in West Asia (present-day Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey). Under Seljuq rule, the exchange and synthesis of diverse traditions—including Turkmen, Perso-Arabo-Islamic, Byzantine, Armenian, Crusader, and other Christian cultures—accompanied economic prosperity, advances in science and technology, and a great flowering of culture within the realm. Opening April 27 at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the landmark international loan exhibition Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs features spectacular works of art created in the 11th through 13th century from Turkmenistan to the Mediterranean.
The exhibition is made possible by the NoRuz at The Met Fund and the Iranian-American Community.
Approximately 270 objects—including ceramics, glass, stucco, works on paper, woodwork, textiles, and metalwork—from American, European, and Middle Eastern public and private collections are shown. Many of the institutions have never lent works from their collections before. Among the highlights are a dozen important loans from Turkmenistan—the exhibition marks the first time that Turkmenistan as an independent country has permitted an extended loan of a group of historical objects to a museum in the United States.
Under the Great Seljuqs of Iran, the middle class prospered, spurring arts patronage, technological advancements, and a market for luxury goods. In contrast, in Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira (northwestern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey)—which were controlled by the Seljuq successor dynasties (Rum Seljuqs, Artuqids, and Zangids)—art was produced under royal patronage, and Islamic iconography was introduced to a predominantly Christian area.
Furthermore, a number of artists had immigrated to the region from Iran in response to the Mongol conquest in 1220. Because patrons, consumers, and artists came from diverse cultural, religious, and artistic backgrounds, distinctive arts were produced and flourished in the western parts of the Seljuq realm.
Arranged thematically, the exhibition opens with a display of artifacts that name the Seljuq sultans and members of the ruling elite. In Central Asia and Iran, inscriptions appeared on coins and architecture. Stucco reliefs representing royal guards, amirs, and courtiers serve to evoke the courts of the Great Seljuq rulers whose names did not appear on objects. In Anatolia, Syria, and the Jazira, names of Seljuq successor rulers and images appeared on a range of objects. Here, the famous 12th-century cloisonné dish bearing the name of Rukn al-Dawla Dawud, a leader of the Artuqids, is featured.
In the second section, the courtly environment and activities associated with the sultans and their courtiers appear on stucco reliefs, ceramics, metalwork, and other media. While depictions of the Seljuq elite on these works were not intended as actual portraits, the distinctive Central Asian facial type was a standard of beauty under Seljuq rule. The earliest extant manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings)—the Persian national epic—created in Anatolia in 1217 is a highlight of this section. Additionally, the remarkable Blacas ewer, with its myriad details of life connected to the court, is prominently exhibited.
The three centuries under Seljuq rule were also a period of inventions; and the many advances in science, medicine, and technology were reflected in the manuscripts, scientific instruments, and medical implements of the time. Pages from the early 13th-century illustrated manuscript The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices feature some of thefanciful inventions of the Muslim polymath and creative genius Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, whose inventions ranged from clocks and water wheels to automata (robots). Also noteworthy is an early Islamic astrolabe. (Among the many things that could be determined by means of this complex navigational instrument was the direction of Mecca, and hence the direction of prayer.) Also on view is an intricate pharmacy box with separate compartments for musk, camphor, and other ingredients typical of the medieval pharmacopoeia.
Seljuq art abounds with depictions of real, mythological, and hybrid animals on objects large and small. Animal combat was a favorite theme in Iranian art. The double-headed eagle was adopted as the standard of the Seljuq successor states in Anatolia and the Jazira. Harpies (composite creatures having the body of a bird and the face of a human) and sphinxes (beasts with the body of a lion, face of a human, and occasionally the wings of a bird) appear frequently. The exquisite Vaso Vescovali—a lidded bowl engraved and inlaid with silver and decorated with complex astrological imagery—features eight personifications of planets on the lid along with the 12 signs of the zodiac and their associated planets on the base, within a profusion of other ornamentation.
The Seljuqs actively promoted Sunni Islam throughout their territory, building madrasas and mosques, and sponsoring the production of Qur'ans and other religious texts. A number of rare and beautifully ornamented examples of the book arts from the time of the Seljuqs are on view. In Syria, the Jazira, and Anatolia—where the majority of the local population, including some of the ruling elite, was Christian—artifacts bearing Christian iconography continued to be made. And a ritual vessel from Georgia, with a Hebrew inscription, attests to the presence of Jewish populations as well. The same artists often served various religious communities. Hence, the styles and artistic traditions of one group merged with those of another.
The sixth and final section of the exhibition focuses on the funerary arts. A variety of tomb markers, cenotaphs, funerary furniture, and patterned textiles discovered in Seljuq tombs are shown. In a proper Muslim burial, the deceased is wrapped in two or three sheets of plain white cloth; the presence of expensive textiles in a funerary context indicates that popular customs and official practice differed significantly.
Catalogue, Related Programs, and Digital Features
A lavishly illustrated catalogue appropriate for scholars and general readers alike accompanies the exhibition. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the book is available in The Met Store (hardcover, $65).
The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Doris Duke Fund for Publications, and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Foundation.
An audio tour, part of The Met's Audio Guide program, is available for rental ($7, $6 for Members, $5 for children under 12).
The Audio Guide is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Education programs include Drop-In Drawing on April 15; a Family Afternoon on July 10; exhibition tours on May 11, May 31, June 15, June 25, July 8, and July 13 ; an Interdisciplinary Gallery Conversation on May 26; and a scholarly symposium on June 9-11. A two-part Sunday at The Met on May 15 will focus on science and art. Sheila Canby will moderate a discussion withSilke Ackermann, Director of the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford, about astronomy and astrolabes, and Peter J. Lu, Research Associate in Applied Physics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, on applications of complex Islamic geometric patterns to physics, respectively. A performance of Feathers of Fire, a cinematic shadow play adaptation of a tale from the Shahnama by artist Hamid Rahmanian, will follow. These programs are free with Met admission.
A two-part Drawing Marathon on May 6-7 will be led by Peter Hristoff. Taking place in The Met's galleries, the workshop will involve live models, props, and costumes ($140, advance registration required; fee includes two-day Met admission and materials).
Peter Hristoff, a Met Artist-in-Residence through June 2016, has worked with Museum staff to develop public programs relevant to the exhibition. These include drawing sessions for various audiences, gallery conversations, and a collaboration between The Met's high school interns and weavers in Turkey. Hristoff is a practicing artist and member of the faculty at New York's School of Visual Arts. The residency is one of a series of programs that celebrate the vibrancy, diversity, and beauty of contemporary Islamic culture within the context of The Met's collection.
The symposium is made possible by Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute and the Soudavar Memorial Foundation.
The Sunday at The Met program is made possible by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Feathers of Fire is made possible by Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute and The Mossavar-Rahmani Fund for Iranian Art.
The Peter Hristoff Artist Residency and related programs are made possible by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
A projection of photographs of Seljuq architecture and landscapes by Henri Stierlin will be visible throughout the exhibition. Historical views of the domes of the Great Mosque at Isfahan—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—will be projected on the ceiling of one area. Taken during the 1960s and 1970s as part of a project headed by Eugenio Galdieri, of the Italian Mission for Restoration of IsMEO (Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente/Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente), the photographs are now housed in the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Orientale "Giuseppe Tucci." To enhance visitor appreciation, a video featuring extreme close-ups of the Blacas ewer will be shown near the work.