The Wonders of the Islamic Worlds of Art and Science, Illuminated
Published: November 7, 2013
SEVILLE, Spain — Four years ago, when the curator Sabiha Al Khemir started preparing an exhibition on the role of light in Islamic art, her plan was to select artworks and objects that visually expressed light or had a direct scientific connection with it.
Raúl Caro/European Pressphoto Agency
Laura Leon/Associated Press
But as she proceeded with her research, Ms. Al Khemir, a Tunisian-born expert on Islamic art, started expanding the show’s scope because “I got to understand that Islam makes a clear link with light even when that link is far from apparent,” she said in an interview here. “Islam is also very much about the light of knowledge that fights the ignorance of darkness,” she added.
The result is an exhibition of 150 works, “Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World,” which runs through Feb. 9 at the Fundación Focus-Abengoa, a cultural center, and spans eleven centuries.
There is a bowl from Iran with stylized blue sun-rays — so deceptively simple that it looks as if it might be the work of a modern artist when in fact it was made in the 13th century. Other objects showcase the way light hits their surface, such as a set of translucent rock crystal chess pieces made in Egypt. There are also several dishes and bottles painted in luster, a technique that originated on glass around the fifth century but was then adapted and applied to ceramics in Iraq about three centuries later, using metal oxides like silver and copper that were mixed with clay or ochre.
Many of the works on display have long been considered Islamic masterpieces and are on loan from well-known institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, the Bodleian Library of Oxford University or the Alhambra Museum in Granada, Spain. Others, however, come from private collections, like the Liechtenstein-based Furusiyya Art Foundation, and some of these works have never before been on public display.
The exhibition is carefully balanced between art and science. Islamic geometry, for instance, was “an endless permutation of the star,” Ms. Al Khemir said, as showcased in a ceiling section from the mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Tijani in the Moroccan city of Fez that features a sixteen-pointed star at the center of each panel.
Astronomy, with items from astrolabes to nocturnals and lunar volvelles, also features prominently. Lunar volvelles acted as an extension of sundials and allowed time to be computed after sunset.
Another section of the exhibition devoted to the art of healing highlights the way Islamic physicians doubled as philosophers, producing medical instruments while writing voluminous encyclopedias. The exhibition is housed in what was a health care center, the Hospital de los Venerables, founded in the 17th century to care for aging or poor priests.
Manuscripts are among the most precious works on display. They include four pages from what is commonly known as the “Blue Quran,” which was originally housed in the Great Mosque of Kairouan. It combines gold leaf lettering with an indigo background to give “an almost cosmic sense” of stars shining in a deep-blue sky, said Ms. Al Khemir, who has also written a novel about this religious text.
Among scientific writings, there is the oldest surviving illustrated manuscript written in Arabic, produced in 1010: the “Treatise on the fixed stars” by the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi.
Ms. Al Khemir, who now lives in New York, has curated several other Islamic exhibitions and was the founding director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. A year ago, she also became an adviser on Islamic art to the Dallas Museum of Art, where the Nur exhibition will travel next spring.
Tamara Wootton-Bonner, an associate director of the Dallas museum, said her institution saw real growth potential in Islamic art and was even considering developing its own Islamic collection, in part also to connect with the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s Muslim community, which is now the fourth-largest in the United States. “It’s probably unfortunate that we’ve not considered Islamic art earlier,” Ms. Wootton-Bonner said.
In the Dallas museum, Ms. Wootton-Bonner added, “we have a lot of flexibility and basically have an empty gallery that we can shape specifically for this exhibition.” In contrast, the Seville show had to be split between two floors.
Where Dallas cannot rival Seville, however, is in terms of having its own Islamic heritage. Large parts of the city still showcase centuries of Arab rule and architecture, including Seville’s magnificent cathedral, built upon the site of its former great mosque.
Seville’s former religious hospital was renovated and turned into a cultural center by the Fundación Focus-Abengoa, which is linked to one of Spain’s main renewable energy companies and funded the Nur exhibition.
Emilio González Ferrín, a professor of Islamic thinking at the University of Seville, welcomed this privately-funded project “in a city where everything always seems to have to come from the state.” He said the exhibition was also a reminder of Islam’s contribution to world culture and science at a time when turmoil in the Arab world dominates the news media.
Ms. Al Khemir echoed that view, saying: “We’re seeing every day the horror of the war in Syria, so it feels right to show also how much light the Islamic world can bring.”
…and I am Sid Harth