x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A peek into the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Byzantium and Islam exhibition

In Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, an array of some 300 objects serve to examine reflections of the shift in power in what had been the southern regions of the Byzantine Empire from the 7th to the 9th centuries.

Folio from a manuscript of the Quran, probably Tunisia, Qairawan, circa 900-950, gold leaf, silver and ink on parchment coloured with indigo, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Folio from a manuscript of the Quran, probably Tunisia, Qairawan, circa 900-950, gold leaf, silver and ink on parchment coloured with indigo, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In thick blocks of carved stone on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, floral patterns of palm leaves and grapevines give the heavy slabs an improbable lightness.

Those patterns on the stones from the Qasr Al Mshatta outside Amman, Jordan, echo designs on silk from the same period a few steps away. They are some of the earliest examples of what we now call arabesques.

"If there's one motif that this show hangs together by, it is grape vines," said Met curator Helen Evans, who organised the exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.

The survey, an array of some 300 objects that was more than seven years in the making, examines reflections of the shift in power in what had been the southern regions of the Byzantine Empire from the 7th to the 9th centuries.

Within decades, Islam dominated the region, and soon Islamic influences shaped its art and architecture.

It was during this time that the Dome of the Rock (691-2), richly decorated in vegetal motifs and mosaics, was constructed in Jerusalem.

Not much later, around 740, the Qasr Al Mshatta (Mshatta Palace) was built, but never completed, by the Umayyads, the first Arab dynasty, who came to power in Syria in the 660s and were replaced by the Abassid in 750.

Much of the stone façade of Al Mshatta is now in Berlin, but on the fragments loaned to the Met, the stones from the fortress that once had 25 towers display elaborately carved rosettes. These embellishments announced the wealth of the rulers who built Al Mshatta to approaching trade caravans, notes the scholar Anna Ballian in the show's massive catalogue.

In catalogue essays, scholars assess the balance between continuity and innovation in styles and decoration, and weigh influences of commerce and conquest - "commerce continues even with conquest", stressed Evans. Yet for the visitor, the objects tell their own stories of improvisation and delight.

Ornamental patterns migrate from silk to stone, to ceramics to metal to the pages of the Quran, in a refinement of design and decoration during the first centuries of Islamic rule.

Vessels in metal had been a tradition in the region. In the exhibition's first gallery - dominated by a huge wall-mounted floor mosaic from Jerash (Jordan) of the cities of Alexandria and Memphis - a silver and gilt pitcher from Sassanian Iran (6th-7th century) is decorated with Persian figures and architectural imagery.

In the final gallery, a copper alloy ewer (decorative pitcher) from Basra has an elegant pear-shaped body. The thumb-rest atop its slender neck is a sculpted half-palmette, perhaps distilled from earlier floral patterns, or from the plumage of a bird - which were favourite decorative motifs. The object is signed in Kufic script by Ibn Yazid. Dating it is problematic, from 688-9 to 882-3, said Evans. Yet curators note in the catalogue that the vessel tells a story of its time, combining pre-Islamic practices "with new patronage and taste, which make metalwork one the most important art forms in the Islamic world."

Subdued and elegant colours are also part the period's palette. A page from what the curators call the "Blue Quran" with horizontal lines of gold calligraphy on a rich aquamarine background, represent design at its most essential.

Curators think the Blue Quran comes from Tunisia, but some experts suggest a central Asian origin. The rarely seen page on view at the Met is on loan from the Brooklyn Museum.

In early Islamic decoration, animal motifs were common. The Met show traces the image of the hare, first on a textile, where the creature crouches on a bed of stylised leaves, then to a long-necked clear flask from 9th or 10th-century Iraq, which overlays a hare image in green glass. On a lustre-painted ceramic bowl from Abassid Iraq or Egypt, long-eared hares are sections of angular abstractions. A bronze cast of a crouching hare would have finished the sequence, but the object from the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo did not make the journey. It is reproduced in the Met's catalogue.

"Egypt has not lent anything since the fall of Mubarak's regime," said Helen Evans. "We were not able to get loans out of Egypt, although our relationship with the people in Egypt with whom we were talking was always very good. The Egyptian government was not willing to sign export papers for our show, or for the British Museum show on the Haj."

Russian museums are also not lending any objects to the US, although the extraordinary metal ewer from Basra was a loan from the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Evans noted that western institutions are rich in objects from this era. "Part of it is that, when you were buying or excavating around 1900, the two things that helped you find a whole lot in the Eastern Mediterranean were building railroads – that's how they found the Pergamon Altar – and World War I," she said. "If you needed to set cannons, you had to dig down to the ground level, and that often was a mosaic."

• The exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition continues until July 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

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