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Beyond the Palace Walls: Islamic Art from The State Hermitage Museum

Following its highly successful collaboration with The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to stage Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Tsar and Tsarina, the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) continues the successful relationship into 2006 with a major exhibition on Islamic art.

Beyond the Palace Walls, Islamic Art from The State Hermitage Museum showcases the cream of Islamic art from one of the largest and most renowned collections in the world to coincide with the 2006 Festival of Muslim Cultures in the United Kingdom

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From behind the walls of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg come around 200 amazing works of art from as far afield as Egypt and China, dating from the eighth to the nineteenth centuries. Beyond the Palace Walls will reveal the timeless beauty of Islamic art, a beauty that transcends time and space, languages and creeds; an art characterised by diversity and complexity. It presents examples of sumptuous decorative arts including textiles, embroideries, glass, metalwork and jewels, and the captivating stories behind them. Many of these artefacts have never been seen outside Russia.

Dr Gordon Rintoul, Director of the National Museums of Scotland, commented,

“Following last year’s blockbuster exhibition, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Last Tsar and Tsarina, I am delighted that we are consolidating our relationship with The State Hermitage Museum by showing a major exhibition of Islamic Art from their world class collections. Visitors to Beyond the Palace Walls will have the unique opportunity to enjoy outstanding examples of ceramics, textiles, glass, arms and armour from one of the most extensive and respected Islamic art collections in the world.”

The centre piece of the exhibition will be a mesmerising Ottoman tent that visitors to the exhibition will be able to enter and view its magnificent embroideries which demonstrate a synthesis of eastern and western styles. This comparison and contrast will feature heavily in the exhibition as it explores the diversity and complexity of several Islamic cultures. The eighteenth-century campaign tent would have been used by the most senior officers of the Ottoman Empire. Its interiors are richly decorated with jewel-coloured embroidery and gold ribbon lattice windows.

The exhibition is laid out in five sections:

Five Pillars of Islam

With the advent of Islam in the seventh century, a new religion and culture entered the world stage. This section will illustrate the five basic tenets or Pillars of Islam – Profession of Faith, Prayer, Alms, Fasting and Pilgrimage. Reflected in key Islamic art objects, the section will emphasise that beyond these principles Muslim cultures are very diverse and are influenced by internal and external factors.

Early Islamic Art

Outstanding highlights of early Islamic art from countries as far apart as Egypt and Iran will combine metalwork, glass and ceramic items to give a flavour of the diversity of material culture throughout Islamic lands between the eighth and thirteenth centuries and the myriad of ways in which the beauty of local art forms from the early formative years of Islamic rule interacted with the creative impulses of pre-Islamic and non-Islamic artistic traditions, a trend that was to intensify as the centuries went by.

One of the artefacts included in this section is an aquamanile in the form of a Zebu. Made in one piece of cast brass, this sculpture of a Zebu with its calf being attacked by a lion is unique in more ways than one. It is the only piece of its type – nothing like it has come to light since. It is one of the very few Islamic art objects that not only name the maker, but also give a precise date for its production: Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi’l Qasim Iran, July-August 1206. It was made in Iran and in addition to its exquisite casting it also shows remains of sophisticated engraved and silver-inlaid figurative panels.

Beyond the Palace Walls

An evocative showcase wall recalling a royal palace shields the treasures within and highlights some extraordinary results of artistic and creative interaction between Islamic art and both western and eastern arts.

Among the objects in this area is a blue and white ceramic plate decorated with lotus flowers. From the sixteenth century onwards Persian ceramicists were strongly influenced by Chinese blue-and-white wares coming in from Ming China. Many copied the Chinese prototypes extremely closely so that at first sight the object does not seem at all like a piece made within the context of the Muslim world.

The Tulip and the Lotus

The main section of the exhibition concentrates on the golden age of Islamic art between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its intensely fruitful interaction with east and west. Here, an outstandingly beautiful array of decorative art objects, textiles and costumes stand in testimony of a civilization’s unique ability to absorb, assimilate and communicate creatively with western and eastern art, craft and textile traditions.

Central to this area is a magnificent Ottoman tent which draws on Islamic, eastern and western design elements. The tent beautifully illustrates and symbolises the synthesis of different cultural styles within Islamic art.

Diplomacy, Warfare and Trade – The Muslim World and Russia

The artistic synthesis of east and west within the arts of Islam happened through the constant exchange of objects between the Muslim world and countries to the east and west. One important example of this international exchange is the Muslim world’s century-old cultural, political and economic interaction with Russia.

Gifts of Mughal jewellery, decorative horse trappings, costumes and weapons made for the Russian empire are one testament to the historical, political, diplomatic and economic interactions that enabled Islamic art to become an artistic beacon of multiculturalism.

One of the highlights of this section is a small table signed by the goldsmith and jeweller Situram. This bejewelled miniature table of gold, enhanced with enamel work, pearls and precious stones, was made in the seventeenth century in Mughal India. In the eighteenth century the Shah of Persia sent it as part of a spectacular diplomatic gift to the Russian Tsar. The jewels consist of 4 diamonds, 1,762 rubies and 380 emeralds.

Beyond the Palace Walls is supported by a diverse programme of events.

14 July to 5 November 2006. Royal Museum, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication from NMSE Publishing, Beyond the Palace Walls: Islamic Art from The State Hermitage Museum. 

NMSE Note on Islamic Art: Islamic art is a term which has multiple interpretations – all of which are equally valid as they simply emphasize different features of an enormous body of work. Some definitions focus on the religious aspects of the art. Beyond the Palace Walls chooses to open up the interpretation of the term giving a wider definition which takes in all the art produced in the Muslim-ruled states of the Middle East and beyond. See What is Islamic Art: An Introduction, by Sajid Rizvi.

Festival of Muslim Cultures. Beyond the Palace Walls is part of the Festival of Muslim Cultures 2006, a year long UK arts festival that seeks to promote dialogue and understanding of Islam through arts events, creative arts projects, sports events and educational programmes.

Author: Editor

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