Louvre's new window into the glory days of Islamic art


FOR ABUNDANCE, richness and astounding craftsmanship, seek out the Louvre’s newly opened Department of Islamic Art.

Funded by, among others, the King of Morocco, the Republic of Azerbaijan and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, the €96 million project offers a visual history of Islamic expansion ranging from Spain to India, spanning 1,200 years and taking in the glittering days of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus circa 750.

The exhibition also includes bowls decorated with hunting scenes, carved crystal ewers and illustrated pages from a poetry anthology, few of which have an obvious link to Islam, though they are magnificent in their own right.

A large opulent candlestick holder, probably made in Iran in the 12th century, is outstanding, wrought from a single circular sheet of metal with rows of duck and cats shaped, in relief, from the inside.

From the Syrian town of Ar-Raqqah, where the caliph Harun al-Rashid had his summer palace, there are pillar capitals decorated with the palm leaves so beloved of the Abbasids, who replaced the Umayyad dynasty.

There are wool and silk carpets from Kashmir, carved and glazed earthenware from Uzbekistan, from Egypt a brass bowl linked to the Crusader King Louis IX and from the Buddhist centre of Bamiyan there are drinking bowls.

The exhibition notes describe Islam as both a religion and a civilisation – one which includes commerce.

As part of the Arab conquest, the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus introduced a unified system of weights and measures and standardised the spelling of Arabic, thus Arabising their expanding empire.

A marvellous section is devoted to calligraphy including an array of calligrapher’s tools, a video related to the Arabic alphabet, and depictions of the religious phrase Bismillah, which means “in the name of God”, written and graphically displayed in six different forms of script, from the angular Kufi manner to many more decorative and cursive styles.

Until the 19th century, there was a ban on the mechanical representation, ie printing, of the Arabic script, which is why the exhibition displays so many intricate and beautiful manuscripts.

Much of what is exhibited relates to the lifestyles of the rich and powerful such as caliphs, popes, kings and merchants, or, as the Louvre calls them, the urban elite.

There are also personal touches: a tiny kohl brush in its own holder, a silk shroud made for a Christian saint, a handy case containing the weights and scales used by a gold merchant, a sepia photograph of three Damascene artists painstakingly copying the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque.

The exhibition space is compact and located on two floors, with the lower floor providing videos within a comfortable viewing area. But this is an impressive space to which Arabists could easily devote an entire day.

The Arts of Islam exhibition is ongoing. Entry from €11

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