The Morgan Library & Museum’s collection of Islamic manuscripts was the offspring of a love affair. When Pierpont Morgan’s librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, met art historian Bernard Berenson in 1908, the pair instantly fell in love. After traveling together to an exhibition of Islamic art in Munich in 1910, they also fell in love with Islamic manuscripts. In fact, both started private collections of their own. It was at Greene’s urging that Pierpont Morgan purchased the core of the collection now on view in Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting at the Morgan.
Just as the Quran is central to Islamic life, Qurans form the centerpiece of the exhibition. The earliest displayed Qurans are more than 1,000 years old and bear the expansive Kufic script that remained the norm until the 11th century. Other Qurans on view range from a gigantic format for a mosque, to a tiny talismanic version.
The earliest illustrated work in the exhibition, a late-13th-century treatise on animals and their uses, is considered to be one of the 10 greatest existing Persian manuscripts. Indeed, it is regarded as the earliest work of the Mongol School and thus marks the beginning of Islamic book illustration. Its beautiful illustrations reflect the naturalistic Chinese style that was introduced as a result of the Mongol invasion, as do the gold clouds.
The Persians loved their poetry and their poets, who are richly represented in the exhibition. Twenty-one miniatures from the finest extant illustrated life of the poet and mystic Rumi (1207–1273), dating from the 1590s, is the masterpiece of the Baghdad School. They depict, among other things, Rumi temporarily restoring life to Hamza so that he could hear his favorite flutist, saving a bull from the butcher, and even a vision by his beloved disciple of the Prophet Muhammad reading Rumi’s poetry. Rumi, one of the most widely read poets in America today, spoke of love, wine and tolerance. “The nation of love is above denominations,” he wrote. Another section of the exhibition is devoted to illustrations of the Khamsa of Nizami (ca. 1141–1209), a collection of five poetic works that include depictions of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Majnun, the Persian Romeo and Juliet. Six manuscripts of the poems, ranging in date from the 15th to the 17th centuries, are on view.
Nearly two dozen miniatures come from two disassembled albums -- known as the Read Persian and Mughal Albums -- as they were purchased from Sir Charles Hercules Read, a curator at the British Museum in the early 20th century. The Persian Album is especially remarkable for its paintings of secular subjects, including a young lady reclining after her bath. The Mughal Album is particularly rich in depictions of Mughal rulers, including Babur, the founder of the dynasty, and Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. These leaves were among those seen by Greene and Berenson in Munich in 1910, and were subsequently purchased by Pierpont Morgan through Greene’s urging, in 1911.
It seems highly appropriate that this exhibition takes place on the 100th anniversary of Pierpont Morgan’s purchase of the Read Albums, which proved to be such a turning point in the history of the collection. Now, after hidden for a century in the Morgan’s vaults, the public can view, for the first time, the incredible range of the collection, including Belle Greene’s personal collection, which she bequeathed in 1950.
Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting at the Morgan will remain on view through Jan. 29, 2012.
Reading the Quran: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam
With Ziauddin Sardar
Thursday, Nov. 17, 6:30 p.m.*
In his new book Reading the Quran, Ziauddin Sardar, one of Britain’s leading cultural critics, provides an illuminating and highly personal look at the Quran and its role in Islam today. Sardar speaks out for a more open, less doctrinaire approach to reading the Quran, arguing that it is not fixed in stone for all time, but rather a dynamic text which every generation must encounter anew. Presented in cooperation with Asia Society & Museum.
Tickets: $15 for non-members, $10 for Morgan and Asia Society Members
*The exhibition Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan will be open at 5:30 p.m. especially for program attendees.
Gallery Talk: Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan
Friday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
William M. Voelkle, Curator and Department Head, Medi¬eval and Renaissance Manuscripts, with Zahra Partovi, Rumi translator.
Free with museum admission
Adult Art Workshop: An Art of Measure and Harmony: The Arabic Letterform
Friday, Dec. 9, 6:30–8:30 p.m.
After a brief tour of the exhibition Treasures of Islamic Manuscript Painting from the Morgan, calligrapher Elinor Aishah Holland will demonstrate the method of preparing paper, cutting a qalam (pen), and writing Arabic letters. Participants will then be invited to carefully observe the 28 independent Arabic letter forms in the style called Thuluth. Using traditional tools and materials, they will experiment with and draw the letters themselves. In keeping with tradition, they will learn the ancient system of proportional measurement governing Arabic letterform to create harmonious and meaningful lines.
Tickets: $20 for non-members; $15 for members