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