The art of Islam dances with scripts, arabesques, and intricate patterns that unfold like blossoms. Perhaps because of the Koran's edict against idolatry, many Muslim artists through the ages have invested their energy not in representational work, but in covering ceramics, glass, architecture, and textiles with magnificent designs.
The first thing you notice as you walk through ``Cosmophilia: Islamic Art From the David Collection, Copenhagen," a spectacle of an exhibition at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art, is that magnificence: brilliant color, extraordinary detail, mathematical patterning, and ingenious technique.
The show is a rare opportunity to see exquisite works from the David Collection, a private museum in Denmark. The David Collection, founded in 1945 by Christian Ludvig David , is not specifically an Islamic art museum -- European decorative arts are also a strength -- but since David's death in 1960, a succession of directors with deep pockets have cannily grown the Islamic collection, which now amounts to more than 2,000 objects.
This summer, the David Collection has closed for a two-year renovation. Curators and BC professors Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom seized the opportunity to mount this show. ``Cosmophilia" focuses on ornament in Islamic art; they coined the title, which means a love of decoration. They've chosen 123 of the David Collection's finest pieces.
Blair and Bloom have daringly organized the exhibition entirely along visual lines, throwing historical context and geography to the winds. Works made between 600 and 1800 in Muslim cultures stretching from Spain to Northern Africa and India are on view.
The term ``Islamic art" is something of a misnomer; unlike Buddhist art or Christian art, the objects here are not necessarily related to faith, but to the Muslim cultures in which Islam was the predominant religion.
The gorgeous installation breaks ornamental Islamic art down into four themes: writing, geometry, vegetation, and the figure, with a fifth section devoted to objects that combine more than one theme. It's thrilling and provocative to see works near one another that in other ways seem so distant. At the same time, the lack of context frustrates. The catalog does a better job at drawing the larger picture of how designs and techniques developed, or what influences they drew from over time.
The revelation of the Koran is Islam's central miracle. Calligraphers and other artists began transcribing the prophet Mohammed's words even before his death in 632, and calligraphy attained the highest rank in the hierarchy of art in Muslim societies. One stunning excerpt from the Koran here is giant. The folio comes from a Koran manuscript in which the original pages were higher than 7 feet, crafted around 1400 in Samarqand and authorized by the Turko-Mongolian warlord Timur. The two lines of calligrapher Umar Aqta's work here are almost pictorial, with sure, broad black strokes punctuated in red and gold.
Brilliant hues, symmetry, and repetitive pattern stream through the ornamentation on vegetal themes. Look at the mihrab hood, a pair of tiles from a mosque housed in a niche pointing toward Mecca. This Iranian piece (circa 1300) glows an extraordinary green-blue; such gem tones are characteristic of Islamic art. The artist painted the tiles in copper oxide and cobalt oxide before firing. They sport two raised levels of arabesque: a brawny, twining one in blue, and a more delicate one filigreed beneath in turquoise.
Another set of tiles, dating to 1540 in Iznik, Turkey, demonstrates an expansion of the ceramicist's palette, adding mossy green to the mix. This breathtaking piece, made for a palace bathhouse, follows a trend of designs based on flowers popular in Ottoman courts at the time. Branches interweave, imbuing the tiles with a sense of three-dimensionality and the hint that a breeze has set the flowers swaying.
The geometric complexity of some of the pieces in ``Cosmophilia" suggests that the artists worked hand in hand with Muslim mathematicians, who were developing algebra, algorithms, and the golden mean. Blair and Bloom say that's probably not the case; intricate as these ornamental geographies appear, they were probably plotted out with a straight edge and a compass.
An early example, a sixth- or seventh-century glass bowl from Iraq or Iran, has hexagonal facets ground out and polished to reflect light. A more sophisticated radial design appears in a delicately detailed metal tray crafted in India in the second half of the 17th century. Blackened alloy makes the perfect backdrop for the inlaid pattern of flower petals in brass and silver.
Much Islamic ornamentation stems from other sources, such as Greek, Roman, and Chinese art. One architectural detail, the muqarnas , is a strictly Muslim invention used as a cornice. Made of progressively stacked niches, it resembles a honeycomb or a series of stalactites.
One wooden muqarnas, a capital dating to 18th-century Baghdad, was fastidiously made from pieces nailed to a semi-dodecagonal core. Each row is more complex: The first shows off triangles and diamonds, the second sports hexagons and pentagons, and so on. Look up at it, and you see stars.
The Koran does not explicitly forbid portraying people. Certain Muslim cultures did prohibit it; others, such as those in India and Iran, where miniature painting was an art, kept secular figurative art far from the mosque. Many of the figurative works in ``Cosmophilia" reflect court life.
``Painting of King Enthroned" (1515-1535, Iran), a colorful leaf from a manuscript of the Persian national epic, the Shahnama , depicts a legendary king, Kay Kavus , welcoming his grandson and heir. The king was a poor leader, and here his face has been blacked out, Bloom and Blair say in the catalog, to underscore his foolish character.
A length of velvet portraying a life-size standing woman made in 17th-century India or Iran, perhaps to hang on a palace wall, combines many traditions. The weaving technique is Persian, the iconography is Indian, the woman's feet are sideways in an Egyptian style. The lush piece, woven in green, red, brown, and yellow against a silver ground, features blossoming vines, birds, and animals.
``Cosmophilia" is replete with staggering craftsmanship such as this. The curators' focus on beauty, rather than time and place, reflects the power of ornament throughout Muslim cultures. It dazzles, mystifies, and comforts. Whether secular or religious, it bespeaks an abiding faith in the power of creation.