An exhibition that opened 21 October at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York includes treasures such as a 13th century treatise on animals and their uses, regarded by some experts as one of the greatest of all Islamic manuscripts, and a rare illustrated translation of the life of celebrated Persian poet and mystic Mevlana Jalal Al-Din Rumi.
It is the first time the Morgan has gathered these spectacular volumes together in a single exhibition, and several are disbound, permitting visitors to view a selection of miniatures from them.
“Pierpont Morgan, the museum’s founder, was interested in art of the Middle East,” said William Griswold, director of the Morgan. “He collected ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals and tablets, which are now exhibited in the recently restored McKim Building, and later began to acquire manuscripts from the Islamic period. The works on view in this exhibition are extraordinary examples of illumination and calligraphic expertise and demonstrate an artistic sophistication of the highest order.”
The earliest illustrated manuscript in the exhibition is a late-13th century treatise on animals and their uses, Ibn Bakhtishu’s Manafi-i hayavan (Uses of Animals) that was regarded by scholar Richard Ettinghausen as one of the 10 greatest Islamic manuscripts. The amazing miniatures reflect the new naturalistic Chinese style that was introduced as a consequence of the Mongol invasion.
Another notable manuscript, because it is one of only two known copies, is a Turkish translation of Aflaki’s life of Mevlana Jalal Al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet and mystic who today continues to be among the most widely read poets in the world. The translation, by Darvish Mahmud Mesnevi Khan, was made in Baghdad in 1590 and was commissioned by Sultan Murad III.
Another richly illustrated Turkish manuscript with stunning miniatures is a treatise on astrology, wonders of the world, demonology, and divination made around 1582 for Ayisha Sultan, the daughter of the same Ottoman Sultan Murad III who commissioned the translation of the Aflaki life of Rumi.
Nearly two dozen individual miniatures come from two disassembled albums once owned by Sir Charles Hercules Read, who was keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum from 1896-1921.
Poetry was an extremely important aspect of Persian culture, and a special section of the exhibition is devoted to six illustrated manuscripts (from the 15th through the 17th centuries) of Nizami’s Khamsa (“The Quintet”), which include depictions of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Majnun, the Persian Romeo and Juliet, as well as Iskander (Alexander the Great), and Bahrun Gur and the Seven Princesses. Two of the manuscripts are disbound, making it possible to show several miniatures from them.
Just as the Quran is central to Islamic life, a gigantic luxury Quran takes centre stage at the beginning of the exhibition. The work, originally in one volume, was made in Shiraz about 1580. Although its first historical destination is unknown, it was later, in 1719-20, presented by Sultan Ahmed III to the mosque of Jerrah Pasha in Dikili Tash in Istanbul.
The exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York runs until 29 January 2012.