An apprehension of the divine is central to our understanding of the period in world history between the 4th and 15th centuries. Art is the medium through which that journey can take place.
When we look up at the night sky, we are looking back in time towards a time when the discovery of the cosmos emerged i.e. the realization the world as a whole had a structure, which opened it up to rational enquiry.
This happened in ancient Greece where the word kósmos (cosmos) meant order, and where many theorists believed the whole of the cosmos reverberated with harmonies like those audible in music. From that day to this our fascination with the heavens has driven man forward to make outstanding discoveries, to expand and refute old ideas and eventually, to land a man on the moon.
In ancient times the cosmos was conceived as a tightly structured, hierarchical system centred on the earth and the human race.
At every level there was a moral lesson for humanity, and a satisfying metaphor for the grandness of nature, which was ultimately in control. With the advent of the belief in one God, came the notion that ‘he’ was architect of the Universe, and therefore also ruled nature.
Great Roman scholar, philosopher and statesman Aniciius Manlius Severinus Boethius (AD 470 or 275 – 524) was one of those learned men who transferred ancient ideas to medieval scholars in Europe.
The city of Madinat al-Zahra north west of Cordoba in Southern Spain was a scholarly centre of learning in Western Europe, with Córdoba and its 500,000 inhabitants the most populated city in Europe where scholars concerned themselves agriculture, gardening and matters of the soul, harmony and music as major aspects of the cosmos.
During the eleventh century books about the practice of medicine by important Muslim physicians like Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE) and al-Razi (864-930 CE) were translated into Latin and brought into European universities, where they were used for centuries. This included an understanding of hygiene and the importance of cleanliness, which meant separate wards for different diseases.
At this time in the Middle East the rule of a military family of Turkic tribes began with the tenth century migrations of the Turkish peoples from Central Asia and southeast Russia led by a chief named Seljuq. He settled his followers in the lower reaches of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and later converted to the Sunnite form of Islam.
The Seljuqs invaded southwestern Asia, with Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine as well as most of modern day Iran coming under their purview, as they established a vast, decentralized and relatively short-lived Empire, which wielded power over life and death 1038-1307.
The Seljuqs Dynasty became a synthesis for diverse traditions, including Turkmen, Perso-Arabo-Islamic, Byzantine, Armenian, Crusader, and other Christian cultures.
The Seljuqs rule was accompanied by expanding economic prosperity, advances in science and technology, as well as a great flowering of culture and over three centuries they made considerable advances in science, medicine, and technology and great works of art were produced under royal patronage.
The Vaso Vescovali; a lidded bowl both engraved and inlaid with silver is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where from Turkmenistan to the Mediterranean they are showcasing Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs
The bowl of the Vaso Vescovali is decorated with complex astrological imagery, featuring some eight personifications of planets on its lid, alongside twelve signs of the zodiac and their associated planets on the base, within a profusion of other ornamentation.
This landmark international loan exhibition features spectacular works of art created from eleventh through the thirteenth centuries with some 270 objects, including ceramics, glass, stucco, works on paper, woodwork, textiles, and metalwork loaned from American, European, and Middle Eastern public and private collections.
Important loans from Turkmenistan, an independent country will see a range of historical objects travelling for the first time to the United States.
The Turkish Seljuqs adopted the cultural language of their Persian instructors in Islam and literary Persian spread throughout Iran. This affected the Arabic language, which virtually disappeared in Iran, except in works of religious scholarship.
Networks of madrasahs (Islamic colleges) founded during the Seljuqs Empire’s rule were able to offer uniform training to the state’s administrators and religious scholars.
The Great Mosque of of Isfahan, a UNESCO World Heritage site was one of those built when Persian cultural autonomy was flourishing within the Seljuqs Empire.
Arranged thematically, the exhibition offers a display of artifacts that name the Seljuqs Sultans and members of the ruling elite.
Patrons, consumers, and artists all came from diverse cultural, religious, and artistic backgrounds, meaning that distinctive arts were produced and flourished in the western parts of the Seljuqs realm.
In Syria, the Jazira, and Anatolia where the majority of the local population, including some of the ruling elite, was Christian, artifacts bearing Christian iconography continued to be made.
The same artists often served various religious communities, which means the styles and artistic traditions of one group merged with those of another
One ritual vessel from Georgia, with a Hebrew inscription, attests to the presence of Jewish populations as well.
Depictions of real, mythological, and hybrid animals on objects large and small are a feature of Seljuq objects with animal combat a favourite theme in Iranian art.
Rare and beautifully ornamented examples of the book arts from the time of the Seljuqs are on view.
Pages on display from the early 13th-century illustrated manuscript The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices will feature some of the fanciful inventions of the Muslim polymath and creative genius Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari whose inventions range from clocks and water wheels to automata (robots).
A celebrated Muslim mystic-philosopher, Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari gave philosophic expression to Islamic thought when studying traditional Islamic sciences in Sevilla, and his historical meeting with the Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd in the city of Cordoba, reverberated with symbolism.
The earliest extant manuscript of the Shahnama (Book of Kings)—the Persian national epic, created in Anatolia in 1217 is a highlight.
Noteworthy is an early Islamic astrolabe, a complex navigational instrument that determined the direction of Mecca, and hence the direction of prayer.
The Seljuqs actively promoted Sunni Islam throughout their territory, building madrasas and mosques, and sponsoring the production of Qur’ans and other religious texts.
As part of their funerary arts, a variety of tomb markers, cenotaphs, funerary furniture, and patterned textiles discovered in Seljuq tombs are on view.
For one Muslim burial, the deceased was wrapped in two or three sheets of plain white clothe; however the presence of expensive textiles in a funerary context indicates popular customs and official practices often differed significantly.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016-04-30
Court and Cosmos: Great Age of the Seljuqs
The Met Fifth Avenue
April 27 – July 24, 2016
A lavishly illustrated catalogue appropriate for scholars and general readers alike accompanies the exhibition. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the book is available in The Met Store.
It has been made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Doris Duke Fund for Publications, and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Foundation.