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Islamic Art at the Sackler Gallery

At the same time as the exhibit of Islamic art loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum to the National Gallery of Art here in Washington (see my review, Islamic Art at the National Gallery, August 21), there is another Islamic art exhibit, Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Sackler is a small-scale museum, with exhibition space mostly underground, that has a good collection but is in some ways the poor cousin of the Freer, which has the superior space: both museums have eclectic collections of mostly Asian art. (If you can't get enough of Islamic art, the Freer is still showing some of its Islamic pieces in an ongoing exhibition called Arts of the Islamic World.) The Sackler exhibit consists almost exclusively of objects loaned by the Hispanic Society of America, in upper Manhattan, a collection brought together mostly by Archer Huntington.

Ivory pyxis, made by Khalaf, c. 966The focus of this exhibit is the nexus of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures, the Arabic-speaking kingdom of al-Andalus, in modern-day Spain. As I noted of the exhibit at the National Gallery, I was stunned by some of the older pieces on view at the Sackler, like the ivory pyxis made by Khalaf around the year 966, covered with finely detailed Arabic script and curling patterned vines. (The inscription reads, "The sight that I offer is the fairest of sights, the still-warm breast of a lovely young woman. Beauty has bestowed upon me a robe clad with jewels, so that I am a vessel for musk and camphor and ambergris.") The only other pieces close in date to it are two composite capitals (also from the mid-10th century) in the third room, one labeled "Corinthian" for some reason, although Ionic volutes are just as prominent as acanthus leaves. An even more fanciful Islamic capital, made for the Alhambra around 1350, is composed of writhing shell and vine shapes (shown in the second room). These capitals, beautiful to study, are pointlessly shown on top of 8-foot-tall columns, which makes them hard to examine. These fake columns may put the capitals in their intended context, but why is that necessary or desirable in a museum?

Other reviews:

Eve Zibart, The Majesties Of Medieval Spain, May 14, for the Washington Post

Blake Gopnik, Islam's Spanish Eyes: Sackler Show Tracks Glory Days of Muslim Spain, May 16, for the Washington Post

Holland Cotter, Polyphony For the Eye, July 16, for the New York Times

Souren Melikian, The Arab imprint on Spanish history, July 17, for the International Herald Tribune
Although not as old, the documents in the exhibit are also remarkable, like the Privilegio Rodado in the second room, a hand-copied document in Latin, and translated into Old Spanish, of a proclamation of King Alfonso X "el Sabio." This is not a luxury document, but it has a more quotidian beauty. A map of the world, attributed to a nephew of Amerigo Vespucci and made in Seville in 1526, is spread out on a wall in the last room of this exhibit. It is thought to be a copy made in secret of the top-secret master map preserved by cartographers in Seville, and it quite naturally positions Spain at the center of the world. Paris does not even appear on the map, although "Ruan" (Rouen) does. Our hemisphere is dominated by the more-explored South America, with only some parts of Central America and what is labeled "Terra Floryda" appearing to the north. The value of such a document in preserving the state of world knowledge at one time and in one place cannot be overstated.

The fourth room has some other beautiful documents, including a Hebrew translation (Sefer Musre Hafilosofim) made by a Jewish scholar in Toledo, of a work in Greek that he knew from an Arabic copy made in Baghdad. Alongside some other late medieval and Renaissance Koran pages and Hebrew Bibles, there is a 15th-century antiphoner from Belalcázar (Córdoba). On the day I saw the exhibit, this hand-copied book was open to the Magnificat antiphon ("Dixit dominus ad Adam") for Vespers on Septuagesima Sunday. This manuscript, although richly illuminated, is notated in late medieval nota quadrata, easy to transcribe but not all that interesting from a paleographical perspective. The antiphon's text—The Lord said to Adam, from the creation narrative in Genesis—seemed to underscore the hope of this sort of exhibit: that the adherents of three faiths will see beyond their differences and, in the interest of humankind, find a way to exist without conflict.

Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain will be on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in Washington, D.C., until October 17.

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