‘Pearls’ at The Walters


The exhibit’s title, Pearls on a String, is lettered in both English and Arabic, at the entrance to the exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.


Dish with Armenian monogram Safavid Iran, 17th century The vivid blue and white dish is part of the exhibit on the court of Safavid ruler Shah Sulayman. Painted and glazed fritware Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A new exhibit at The Walters Art Museum in downtown Baltimore offers a glimpse into the creativity of Middle Eastern artists from the 16th to the 18th Century. Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, focuses on art created for the rulers of the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman Empires.

Filled with paintings, tapestries and carpets, objects covered in jewels and painted in vibrant color, it’s rich in so many ways.

The 120 objects present an artist’s appreciation of beauty, reverence for his world and a curiosity for the people in it.

The exhibition focuses on three people: writer Abu’l Fazl, a historian at the court of the third Mughal emperor Akbar in India; painter Muhammed Zaman, an artist at the court of Safavid ruler Shah Sulayman who introduced European style into the Persian court and patron Sultan Mahmud I, an Ottoman ruler and patron of the arts.

Some things I expected: screens and carpets and intricate calligraphy. I know very little about Islamic art but these are familiar.

Akbar Presiding over Discussions in the Ibadatkhana

In this painting, Mughal Emperor Akbar talks with various religious representatives: Akbar Presiding over Discussions in the Ibadatkhana From the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar) Attributed to Narsingh Mughal India, ca. 1600â-1603 Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

What surprised me were the images of The Holy Family Fleeing to Egypt, a portrait of a Jesuit priest and a Sanskrit text. The Muslim artists of the time had a deep curiosity of the people around them that came from different traditions. I was particularly struck by a small painting of an Islamic ruler in the midst of discussions with representatives of various other religious traditions.

The exhibit dazzles the eye while it nourishes the mind. I was captivated by a carpet inhabited by a variety of animals. Several paintings of Christian stories stopped my in my tracks — They were painted by Islamic artists. I wondered about the stories that were told in a series of delicate and carefully detailed paintings. And I was completely wowed by the sheer luxury of jeweled objects from pen boxes to musical instruments to weapons.


Henry Walters acquired this Jeweled musket owned by Sultan Mahmud I, of the Ottoman Empire, which had a secret compartment containing even more jeweled objects, including calligrapher’s pens and a spoon used for shooting the gun. From the Walters Collection

Although the exhibit isn’t gigantic, it’s breadth and depth make it one that requires time. You want to read all the captions, listen to the music and watch the slide show. Most of all you need to sit with this art, look at it, enjoy it.

For me it was all new but in this day and age, I felt compelled to come and see these Pearls on a String. And I know I’ll be back to see these works again. It’s beautiful. It’s overwhelming. And I have to say it: It’s a gem.

The artwork in the free exhibit comes from the Walters’ own collection as well as the Albert and Victorian Museum in London, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York among others. It’s on display until Jan. 31, 2016.

P.S. Planning to go to the lighting of the Washington Monument on Thursday? Stop by the Walters and see it as part of your holiday festivities! It’s open until 8 p.m.

Text and top photo Mary K. Tilghman.
Artwork photos courtesy of The Walters Art Museum


4 responses to “‘Pearls’ at The Walters

  1. Mainstream Islam traditionally respects both Jewish and Christian traditions, as all three religions admit the Old Testament as part of their sacred texts. Islam also admires Jesus as a prophet and teacher; his mother Mary is honored in mainstream Islam as Miriam. Mainstream Islam views Jews and Christians as working their way along the right path to recognizing that there is only one god (Islam does not accept the Christian idea of the Trinity) and that Mohammad is the most recent and venerable of his prophets.

    Radical Islam takes a different view, that there is no excuse for Jews and Christians not accepting Mohammad’s teachings since they have the opportunity, and therefore they are heretics. (This is much the same as the way some Christian sects have viewed believers of other faiths.)

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