Contextualising Some of the World’s Most Beautiful Treasures
Author(s): Ken Chitwood & Annabelle Collinet & David Bourgarit & Julia Gonnella
Reviewed by: Cleo Cantone, London, UK
Reviewed by: Cleo Cantone – London, UK
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ISLAM THROUGH OBJECTS, edited by Anna Bigelow. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 245pp (excluding images at rear). ISBN: 9781350138308.
THE MUSLIMS OF LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN, by Ken Chitwood. London: Lynne Rienner, 2021, 285pp. ISBN: 9781626379480.
ISLAMETAL - PRÉCIEUSES MATIÈRES. LES ARTS DU MÉTAL DANS LE MONDE IRANIEN MÉDIÉVAL, edited by Annabelle Collinet and David Bourgarit. Paris: Coédition musée du Louvre éditions/Faton, 336 pp., 250 ill., 2022. ISBN: 9782878442991.
THE MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART – THE COLLECTION, edited by Julia Gonnella. London: Thames & Hudson, Qatar Museums, 2022, 592pp. ISBN:9780500480847.
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Decoration (decus) means the bestowal of honour. Beauty followed honour. Because man honoured his deity, grand temples and cathedrals arose and altars blazed with gems; and because he honoured the prince and the noble, palaces were decked with splendour. (...) Now I hear you talking a few evenings ago about your hopes of one day seeing Shiraz and Mecca ... I have called this morning to say, firstly, “Don’t”; secondly, “Come, go around with me here in London.”1
Thus wrote Moncure Daniel Conway in 1882 evoking the world contained in one place: the British Museum. Conway could easily be speaking about the Louvre whose collections, in a similar global amassing vein, invite the visitor to contemplate the historic heritage of ‘other’ cultures. The controversial role of museums aside, what merits dwelling on is the term decus and its relation to the beautification of objects, often utilitarian implements such as lamps, mortars, food receptacles, ewers and incense burners turning them into what we now consider objects d’art worthy of being enshrined in glass cases for admiration purposes only. The arts of Islam, as they are commonly known, embrace, amongst others, textiles, ceramics, glassware and metalware: the latter three comprise the ‘arts of fire’ simply because of the method for their production requires firing. The adjectives most commonly used in describing this category of artistic creation are luxury, beauty, radiance: here materials have the upper hand. Yet, as the editor and leader of ISLAMETAL - Précieuses matières study contends, the focus on metalware is comparatively slight relative to the literature on ceramics making this voluminous and generously-illustrated monograph on the Louvre’s collection of Islamic metalware particularly from the region of Kashan in Iran all the more necessary.
Why do these ‘precious’ objects capture our imagination to this day? Undoubtedly, their materials, their manufacture as well as the story behind their commissioners and artisans make for a compelling narrative, nevertheless without a personal connection to objects of no ordinary calibre may seem somewhat farfetched. For one, they are encased in glass in a museum setting: not exactly accessible to the public other than those who are privileged enough to work there; world-class museums possess a crème-de-la-crème selection of objects, mostly destined in their previous incarnation, to a courtly or elite audience. Moreover, as a reviewer, I am viewing these objects two-dimensionally on the pages of a book. This called for some remedial adjustment in perspective: the volume of Précieuses matières lies on my vintage Moroccan, presumably brass tray, which is admittedly looking rather peaky. Having found a cleaning recipe online consisting of white vinegar and table salt, I gave it a good scrub. Its colour has been totally revived turning into a soft yellowish gold. The central rosette containing incised ‘arabesque’ motifs is now visible and the tray now makes a far more respectable receptacle for its Parisian guest.