Museum Challenge: Arms & Armor of the Islamic World at the Met

On the same day that I saw the Year of the Rooster exhibit at the Met, I also decided to take a look at the Arms & Armor of the Islamic World exhibit. Most of my undergrad studies focused on Middle Eastern history so it’s an area I’m generally interested in. Plus, I grew up reading sword and sorcery fantasy novels like the Dragonlance series of books, the Lord of the Rings, and Song of Ice and Fire, among others. The Wheel of Time series is also pretty good. Anyway, seeing arms and armor in person isn’t as dramatic as those stories, or watching Game of Thrones, but it’s pretty cool anyway. The Arms & Armor hall in the Met is one of my favorite exhibits. I was hoping the Arms & Armor of the Islamic World exhibit would be just as impressive.

Books on my "fantasy-epic" read shelf on Goodreads

Books on my “fantasy-epic” read shelf on Goodreads

It really wasn’t though.

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Hercules Segers, Arms & Armor
The exhibit consisted of a few items packed into one small room, along with a sign saying, “Oh by the way, there’s some other stuff scattered around the rest of the museum that generally falls into this category but we couldn’t be assed to actually put it all together into a coherent display for you, but wanted to get more people into the museum and get more money so we pretended to set up a full exhibit and put it on our website and brochures.” Or something along those lines.

Disappointment in the size and scattered nature of the special exhibit aside, I took great pleasure in examining what was actually there and in looking at the regular items on display.

Next time I head to the Met, I think I’ll go take another look at the Islamic Lands wing. I haven’t been there since shortly after I opened, in 2012 I think it was.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last Saturday, I went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue to conduct a scavenger hunt for certain types of items in this exhibit and then drafted up an essay response, but I thought it might be useful to people thinking about going to see the exhibit itself, so I’m posting it here as well.


The exhibit, “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven,” is being shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017. Like the title of the exhibit implies, the selection of art being displayed includes pieces that are representative of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the “People Under Heaven” in the Abrahamic tradition.

Jerusalem 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven
 

One of the displays contains a set of astrolabes, which, according to the description, were devices that were “used to answer questions related to time, geography, and the position of the stars.” The three astrolabes on display were all created in Andalusia and include the city of Jerusalem. The text on the astrolabes were written in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Another interesting item with text in multiple languages is “Slaughter of the Amalekites and Saul’s Last Stand,” which contains marginal notes in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian, written by subsequent owners of the book.

Most of the items were in pretty common languages used in the area, like those mentioned above, though there were exceptions. There is a text called “The Book of Kings” which I assume is written in an Ethiopian language, but I cannot be sure because the language used is not included in the description. More clearly labeled is a Copto-Arabic Book of Prayers, written in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian. There is also a Book of Saints’ Lives written in what I can only assume is Georgian, again because the description is not clear.

There is a very large variety of items on display. There were at least three different versions of the Bible: a Samaritan Bible from 1232 CE in Yavneh, a Bible from northern Europe, ca. 1300, and a Bible from 13th century Rome or Bologna. There are also Jewish liturgical books like “Opening Prayer for Shabbat Parah” from 1257-58 CE, “The Catalan Mahzor” from 1280 CE, and “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a Haggadah from 1360-1370 CE. There were also choir books, swords, vases, amazing Jewish wedding rings, pillar capitals and reliquaries.

Two items that really caught my attention were the “A Knight of the d’Aluye Family” and the “’Umra Certificate.” The “Knight” sculpture was the covering of a burial place for a Crusader, dated to between 1248-1267 CE. What piqued my interest was the sword depicted in the sculpture, which is Chinese in appearance. It was fascinating to see actual proof of the exchange of items between Europe and Asia during that period. The ‘umra certificate from 1433 CE, which belonged to Sayyid Yusuf bin Sayyid Shihab al-Din Mawara al-Nahri, fascinated me because it emphasized just how important pilgrimage was and perhaps continues to be in the Islamic tradition. Going on the Hajj to Mecca had a direct impact on a Muslim’s social standing and warranted adding the honorific al-Hajj or al-Hajjah to one’s name. The ‘umra scroll shows that pilgrimage to areas in and around Jerusalem were nearly as important and warranted their being added to a certificate that could be displayed when the pilgrim returned home.

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is definitely worth attending. It shows the central importance that Jerusalem played to a huge range of areas between 1000 and 1400, with items on display from Africa, Europe, Persia, and various places in the Middle East. It would be nice if there were translations of the texts on display, or if the languages being shown were at least clearly labeled. The grouping of the items could have been somewhat clearer as well, either chronologically or thematically. On the other hand, the items were displayed in a way that made them easy to view and appreciate. It is definitely a worthwhile way to spend an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.

An Afternoon at the Museum

Another week done. On the one hand, I feel like I should value my time more, but on the other, I’m always so glad when another work week is finished. Sometimes we’re too worn out to do anything on the weekend and we spend most of our time at home, just relaxing. This weekend, we’d made plans to try to get out and enjoy some art. We had originally planned to go to the Guggenheim on Saturday night. I did a little research on their website and found out that if you go between 5:45 PM and 7:45 PM on a Saturday night, you can pay whatever you want for admission, instead of the usual $25 apiece. I don’t mind paying to see art, but I can’t see paying $50.00 (the Met has the same suggested rate for adults, though it’s just a suggested rate) every time we decide to spend an hour or two inside a museum. We’re not tourists, after all.

We never made it out of the house on Saturday afternoon, so when we got ready to go out on Sunday we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art instead. We can go visit the Guggenheim next Saturday, if we’re not doing something else. Our plan was to go to the second floor and look at the 19th and early 20th century European paintings, but we got sidetracked when we stumbled into the “Manus x Machina” special exhibit behind the medieval European art section of the first floor. We were actually heading to the restrooms at the time. The exhibit wasn’t too big so we figured we’d take a look before heading upstairs. It was incredible how many people were in that small area. In a few places I felt like I was wading through the herds of people that are always moving through Times Square.

The dresses on display were way beyond what I was expecting. I didn’t think I would be impressed, because I’m not seriously into fashion, but looking at the dresses on display there, I think I finally understood that sometimes fashion can be art too, as cheesy as that sounds.

Some of the dresses were fascinating:

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Some were terrifying (this one is made with real gull skulls):

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Others were whimsical:

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A few more images in a Flickr gallery:

Manus X Machina
We finally found our way upstairs, but immediately got lost in the 1600-1800s era galleries. It wasn’t until we were about to leave that we finally found ourselves looking at Van Gogh, Degas, and Gauguin. After having visited so many times, I got overconfident in my ability to navigate to the area we were looking for. Next time I’ll just download the app before we go so I have a map in my pocket.

I’d hoped to spend 20 minutes or so in the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia gallery, but I think I was being too ambitious considering how late it was when we got there, but there’s always next time.

We polished off the evening with some awesome burgers over at Shake Shack. It was a pretty good end to the weekend.

An Excellent Day at The New American Wing of the Met and JKO Reservoir

Last Saturday wound up being one of those days that just turned out right.  We got a late start because we both slept in, but once we got out the door we were rolling.  We started our day off with a visit to Udon West, a great Japanese noodle shop on St. Mark’s Place (8th St) by Astor Place.  If you haven’t been there, it’s worth the trip.  Seriously.

Gallery 700 - The Charles Engelhard Court - New American Wing

Gallery 700 – The Charles Engelhard Court – The New American Wing

Just before leaving the house, I’d decided on a whim that we should drop by the Met.  We hadn’t been in months and we’d kept talking about going back to see more of the galleries.  I kept it a secret from my wife.  I just told her we were going out to have a little fun.  She didn’t realize where we were going until we turned the corner at 86th street and the museum was in front of us.

Portraits from The American Wing

Portraits from The American Wing

She was a little hesitant to go in because she wanted to enjoy the sun, but once we were through the door she said she wanted to see “The New American Wing” of the museum.  At first I was thinking, “meh…”, because really, how many Americans do you know that want to spend a few hours looking at American art?  I tend to get excited about seeing art from other parts of the world, but for her, America is another part of the world and I was a little curious, so off we went.

George Washington crossing the Delaware River

George Washington crossing the Delaware River.

Panorama of a panorama painting of Versaille Palace

I took a panorama of this panorama so you can pan around the panorama. Seriously, it’s a panorama painting of Versaille. The room it’s in is pretty big.

We detoured a bit through some European galleries because the American galleries are in the back right corner, but once we got there, I was pleasantly surprised.  Some of the paintings looked oddly disproportionate considering the relative skill of European painters at the time, but a couple of the paintings and sculptures really caught my attention.

Man sketching a sculpture

Man sketching a sculpture.

Woman contemplating a cross

Woman contemplating a cross. My wife said the cross could just as easily be a cell phone. Once she said that, I couldn’t un-see it.

The Ameya, by Robert Blum (1893)

The Ameya, by Robert Blum (1893)

A Tiffany Studios work desk from the early 1900s

A Tiffany Studios work desk from the early 1900s

Not sure, but incredibly disturbing

Not sure, but incredibly disturbing.

Roof structure transplanted into the museum

This entire roof structure was transplanted from its original location to the museum. Many rooms or portions of houses and buildings have been relocated to the museum.

We wore ourselves out walking around in the museum but before heading back downtown I wanted to take my wife up to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park, just north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The view was great and we resolved to make trips there to jog in the near future.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park

When we got back to the East Village, we capped our night off with dinner at Thai Terminal, which also has great food.

We meant to spend the day shopping and doing chores, but I’m glad we decided to kick that all to the curb and just have a good time for a change.

Full photo set from our trip to The New American Wing

More photos of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

Art Comparison: Qu’ran Manuscript and The Angel Gabriel

The following is the second paper I wrote for my Art History 100 class.  We were tasked with finding two art pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and then writing a paper that compares and contrasts them based on form and content.  Our choices were restricted to certain art periods from specific locations, like French Gothic or Italian Renaissance.  I chose the following two pieces because I found them particularly interesting on a personal level, as well as being easy to write about.

I think I might have been a bit off the mark on fitting The Angel Gabriel to the Renaissance standard, but I won’t know for sure until September, when I can get in touch with the professor and see the paper.  It was due on the day of the final, so there’s no way for me to get it back and check it out.  I’ll update the grade received and any notes from the professor at some point, on the Essays page.

(Note: The images were not included in the paper that was turned in.  I added them here so readers that aren’t as familiar with art as my professor can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.)

 

Introduction and Location

The paper will be discussing the differences and similarities between two works: The Angel Gabriel and Qur’an Manuscript. The Angel Gabriel was created in approximately 1493, is attributed to Masseo Civitali and is believed to have originally been located in the oratory of Santa Maria dell’ Anunnziata in Lucca, Italy. The work is now located in gallery 500 on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the “European Sculpture and Decorative Arts” section. The Qur’an Manuscript was created in the early 14th century, by an anonymous artist in Iran or Iraq. The work is now located in a display case in gallery 203, on the Great Hall Balcony on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Formal Aspect & Genre Descriptions

The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel is a Renaissance sculpture that is roughly life-sized. The sculpture is a painted and partially gilt terracotta statue. It appears to have been free standing on its original base, which is now broken. The statue is now anchored to a display base. The sculpture leans at an almost unnatural angle, covered in a draped garment that is smooth and flowing. The figure is naturalistically proportioned and detailed, though the face is idealized. On the back of the statue, there are two vertical slots where terracotta wings were probably inserted. Renaissance art was largely religious (Aston 105). Compared to the earlier Gothic style, Renaissance art focused more on the human aspect of the art subject. Where Gothic art was solemn and dignified, Renaissance works like The Angel Gabriel attempted to introduce tenderness and beauty into art without sacrificing the aura of divinity associated with religious figures (Aston 133). The introduction of a human element into the sculpture is apparent in the joyous expression on the face and in how the arms are crossed over the chest, as though the angel can barely contain the good news he is about to share. Rather than standing vertical, the angel is leaning forward towards the recipient of his news. Despite these included aspects of human emotion, the aura of the divine is still maintained through the idealized, androgynous face (angels have no gender), and the original presence of wings on its back.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qur’an Manuscript is a non-illustrated manuscript folio and an example of Islamic art. The page on display is 34.9 x 27.3 centimeters and was made with ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The page is primarily covered with naskh cursive text, but also contains decorative calligraphy and hand drawn vegetal and geometric images that are painted with gold. Islamic art as a whole is defined by a prohibition against making representations of living things, since it might create a temptation to commit idolatry (Evans 151). The resulting typical expression of Islamic art is mostly abstract, containing geometric patterns, references to vegetation and calligraphy. These elements were reflections of religious beliefs. The geometric patterns represent the perfection of Allah and the vegetation is a reference to paradise in the afterlife. Calligraphy also became a popular form of art, taking the place of images and being used to represent Allah. The main purpose of calligraphy was to appreciate the visual quality, rather than to read it. These elements are present in both secular and religious art, though secular art would not contain calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an.

Content

Theme

Both The Angel Gabriel and the Qu’ran Manuscript have a similar theme. Both works are the products of religious devotion. Gabriel is a prominent figure that is present in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Stories about Gabriel appear in each religion’s holy texts. The Qur’an Manuscript is a handwritten and decorated page of the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. The difference between the two works is that while The Angel Gabriel represents a religious idea, it was mostly meant to be decorative, appearing in an oratory. The Qu’ran Manuscript, on the other hand, while being decorative was also meant to be functional, a holy book to read and learn from.

Depiction

The Angel Gabriel, Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Angel Gabriel specifically depicts Gabriel, an angel, leaning forward, as if appearing to someone. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” or “the strength of God” and he is known as The Great Communicator (Aquilina 69). Throughout the Bible, Gabriel appears to people to bring them news from God. In Daniel 8:15-17 he appears to Daniel to explain a vision to him. In Luke 1:16-17 he appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife shall have a child and that his child, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for the Messiah. Later, in Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel appears to Mary, to tell her that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God. According to the information placard on the sculpture’s display base, it is believed that The Angel Gabriel was originally part of a pair of statues which included the Virgin Mary. Together, they would have formed an Annunciation Group, which represents the moment when Gabriel shared the news of her divine pregnancy with her.

Qu'ran Manuscript, 14th Century Iran or Iraq, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Qu’ran Manuscript is a page from the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran. The top of the page contains a geometric, gold painted rectangular frame that contains decorative calligraphy which reads, “Surat Saud, Eighty Six Verses (Ayats), Mekka surat” (Hany), though Mr. Hany also noted that the surat actually has 88 verses. Just to the right of the rectangular frame is a drawing containing concentric circles around a vegetal image, probably of a flower, also in gold with a blue center. Additional matching representations of flowers, rosettes, are drawn throughout the text as markers between ayas, or verses. In the right margin are two decorative seals, one circular, one teardrop shaped, both in gold and surrounded by a blue outline. These seals contain kufic script in the center. The main text of the page is a cursive form of Arabic known as naskh, with recitation marks added in red ink. The text on the page on display is the last part of the 37th surah and the first 11 ayas of the 38th surah of the 23rd juz (part) of the Qu’ran, The Letter Saud, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad at Mecca. Preceding the beginning of the 1st aya in the 38th surah is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful,” which is not part of the surah itself and precedes all of the surahs in the Qu’ran (Hany).

Purpose

The original purpose of The Angel Gabriel would have been to inspire believers and deepen their faith. Many people at the time the statue was created were illiterate, and learning about Christianity, outside of sermons given by clergy, was through observation of religious art. When looking at the sculpture of Gabriel, believers would have been reminded of the good news he shared with people in the Bible, and particularly with Mary. If The Angel Gabriel was originally paired with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then viewing them together would have reminded viewers of their hope of salvation through God’s grace and Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross. The Angel Gabriel was originally designed to be a decorative piece for casual observation and reflection and, though it is now located in a museum rather than a religious building, the effect is essentially the same. It causes the viewer to contemplate the meaning of Christianity and Gabriel’s role in the Bible.

The Qu’ran Manuscript was meant to be a functional copy of the Qu’ran, to be used by believers for study and recitation, as well as to inspire through the decorative artwork it contains. The Arabic text of the page, together with the rest of the text in the Qu’ran, is the physical representation of Allah through language (the written word) in the Islamic faith. The Qu’ran praises Allah and His creation, defines the relationship between Allah and the worshipper, explains the afterlife through eschatological texts and teaches Muslims how to practice their faith in everyday life. While the particular copy of the Qu’ran the page came from is no longer serving that purpose, the text of the Qu’ran has been copied, translated and distributed all over the world and continues to serve the function it was originally created for.

Presentation

The Angel Gabriel is presented in a small room with other Italian Renaissance pieces. The room is well lit, and Gabriel is the first work you notice as you walk into the room. The lighting brings out the remaining color from the original paint and gilding on the statue, giving the viewer an idea of what it might have originally looked like. Appreciation of how the piece was originally displayed would be helped by having a similar work of the Virgin Mary opposite Gabriel, though that is probably not possible due to limitations in the museum’s inventory. An alternative would be to have a digital rendering of what it might have looked like in place at the oratory displayed next to it, or on the display base. As it’s now displayed, Gabriel appears almost out of place in the room and it requires a lot of imagination to picture how it would have originally appeared.

The Qu’ran Manuscript is set in a glass display case along the wall of the Great Hall Balcony. The display case contains other Islamic works that represent highlights from the Department of Islamic Art. The works range in date from the seventh to the eighteenth century and include textiles, jewelry, pottery and other manuscript pages. Since the case shows a cross-section of art, the overall effect is a bit jarring, especially combined with the noise coming from the entry hall below the balcony and the strong smells coming from the balcony dining area. The benefit of being placed in that location is that it catches the eye of people walking by and the skylights and windows help to keep it well illuminated. It would be easier to appreciate this work in a smaller room with other Islamic manuscript pages from the same time period.

Works Cited

Aquilina, Mike. Angels of God: The Bible, The Church, And The Heavenly Hosts. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.

Aston, Margaret. The Renaissance Complete. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1996.

Civitali, Masseo. The Angel Gabriel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Evans, Gillian Rosemary. The Church in the Early Middle Ages: The I.B. Tauris History of the Christian Church. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007.

Hany, Islam. Translations and discussion of Qu’ran Manuscript and Qu’ran. Bradley J. Farless. 15 May 2011.

Unknown. Qu’ran Manuscript. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.