Flora Islamica. Plant Motifs in the Art of Islam

Flora Islamica. Plant Motifs in the Art of Islam

March 22 – October 27, 2013

Reviewed by Dr. Eleanor Sims below introduction.

The David Collection focuses on flowers with a new special exhibition that illustrates the overwhelming visual importance of plant motifs for art in the world of Islam.

For more than a thousand years, trees, plants, and flowers were among the most prevalent motifs in the art of the Islamic world. Many of these works of art saw the light of day in hot, dry, barren regions, which might explain why the lushness of the Paradise described in the Koran and that of artificially irrigated earthly gardens was especially attractive to Muslim artists.

Classical Islamic art has been somewhat reluctant to depict living creatures and to work with figurative motifs, primarily for religious reasons. Over the ages, many artists have accordingly concentrated on more abstract or stylized elements, and floral and vegetal motifs provided a suitably neutral subject.

Art from the world of Islam exhibits an exuberant infatuation with decoration, used unreservedly and masterfully, and taking its subjects especially from the great diversity of the plant kingdom. We find plants or ornamentation based on them on everything from mundane utility ware to the most costly luxury items – from manuscripts to architectural details, jewelry, glass, ceramics, textiles, and weapons. One vegetal ornament, above all, has almost become synonymous with Islamic art: the arabesque.

Flora islamica – Plant Motifs in the Art of Islam presents 66 pieces from the museum’s Islamic Collection and one Persian work of art each from Rosenborg Castle and Designmuseum Danmark. The exhibition is organized as follows: The Heavenly and the Earthly Garden, Inspiration from Antiquity, Inspiration from China, Abstraction, The Arabesque, Fantasy, Naturalism, Plants as a Symbol, Flowers of the Gunpowder Empires.

Parkmuseerne – Copenhagen’s new museum quarter
Flora islamica is the David Collection’s first contribution to the new joint effort – Parkmuseerne – together with the Filmhouse, the Hirschsprung Collection, Rosenborg Castle, the National Gallery of Denmark, and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. This museum quarter in and around Copenhagen’s parks begins its collaboration with a number of exhibitions and other initiatives taking flowers as their common theme.

The Danish exhibition catalogue is on sale in the museum’s shop.

‘FLORA ISLAMICA’ Reviewed by Dr. Eleanor Sims

The David Collection in Copenhagen faces the King’s Gardens and has recently joined an association of Danish museums located in the heart of the city, called Parkmuseerne. Six museums in three parks (one of which is the Botanical Gardens) and a summer season with long hours of daylight: what theme could better serve for a David Collection exhibition than “Flora islamica: Plant Motifs in the Art of Islam,” echoing the season and the place just outside its doors?

“Flora islamica” offers wonderful views of the architecture and a selection of objects “botanically” ornamented that come from a broad swath of the world lying between Spain and India and date from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries. Small, focused, and beautiful, it is almost entirely drawn from the Collection’s great riches and takes nothing from its primary displays.

It is shown in a single room. In one corner, a changing “slideshow” of Islamic architecture may be seen through a geometrically patterned window-grille. Chronologically organized and captioned in both Danish and English, these images present views of buildings revetted, inside and out, with floral and vegetal motifs. In date, they are as early as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and as late as the nineteenth century in Shiraz. The photographs are well chosen, ranging widely in date and origin; often they include people, useful for a sense of date and purpose as well as for scale. If there is a quibble, it would be that the presentation is small and hard to see through the grille; to see it well, one must step back, nearly into a display case.

The exhibition of objects is thoughtfully organized in nine sections. The visitor almost certainly will not find the divisions obtrusive: each is small—five to eight objects—and the installation flows, seamlessly; the explanatory wall-texts, again in both Danish and English, are equally unobtrusive. The section names are well-chosen and well worth noting. Each alludes to a different aspect of Islamic culture; considered altogether, all contribute to a fuller appreciation of the religious and philosophical concerns of Islam, of the chronological and geographical influences that have shaped it over more than fourteen centuries. They also convey a sense of the expanse of time and place in which Islamic material culture flourished historically, especially in the last five centuries.

“The Heavenly and the Earthly Garden” offers idealized architecture—a vision of the Portal of Paradise, which, for Muslims, is a garden—and paintings of gardens, from Iran and India, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century; it also displays a large seventeenth-century Indian bronze fountain in the form of a lotus blossom, whose presence emphasizes the importance of water to a culture of largely arid lands, in which water literally meant life.

“Inspiration from Antiquity” and “Inspiration from China” are self-explanatory. Both geographically and chronologically, each underscores the riches Islam inherited from adjacent lands. Not surprisingly, the exhibits in the second section come from early Muslim Syria and Egypt, Spain and Central Asia: part of a carved marble wall-revetment; portable objects of ivory and gold-painted glass, and a Central Asian silk textile woven in a design used in late Antiquity and the Medieval period for textiles from that same geographical swath of lands, stretching from Spain through Byzantium, Iraq and Iran, to China. The exhibits in the third section are somewhat later and come from medieval Syria, Iran, and Central Asia: gold, enameled glass, silk textiles, and, of course, ceramics—a thirteenth-century eight-pointed star-tile for another wall-revetment and fifteenth-century vessels painted in cobalt-blue on white.

The fourth and fifth sections focus on decorative—philosophical, even—principles fundamental to Islamic culture: “Abstraction” and “The Arabesque.” The Muslim tendency toward abstraction, to the reshaping of natural elements, was always strong; abstracted, symmetrically disposed vegetal and floral elements seem especially suited to architectural decoration. Molded stucco from Iraq, terra cotta from Iran or Afghanistan, carved wood from Egypt, an Iranian ceramic cresting-tile remarkable for its strong turquoise color and its curved shape attest to this affinity between the nature of the ornament and where it was applied. On small objects, too, abstracting natural forms almost beyond recognition yields memorable decoration: a luster-painted ceramic dish from Iraq and part of a mold-blown glass cup from either Iraq or Iran. The arabesque is a very specific kind of abstraction, the denaturalization of a stem or vine: leaves, buds, and blossoms “grow” on stems and, themselves, beget new leaves, buds, and blossoms; these move, twine, and scroll, in carefully controlled rhythms and rigidly symmetrical patterns. Because it is so controllably adaptable, the arabesque is suited to decoration on nearly any scale and size and shape, from narrow, framing bands to the largest fields, whether regular or irregular in shape. In this section, architectural ornament of finely carved wood from Egypt and Syria and a glazed mihrab-shaped tile from Iran join vessels of ceramic and containers of inlaid metal and a pair of carved soapstone matrices for the making of small leather goods to be embossed with scrolling arabesques.

“Fantasy” takes the stylized growing plant-form still further into the realms of sheer decorative exuberance and also moves us, largely, later and farther east. A classical example of the arabesque is the palmettes and trefoils “growing” from the ends of the letters of the Arabic inscription, decorating a tenth-century ceramic dish from Iran or Central Asia; this section begins with a superbly carved Ottoman wood and ivory doorpost, and also shows fantastic plants and flowers on paper, from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iran and India. “Naturalism” reverses the principle, showing more recognizably realistic plant motifs. It begins with a schematically “natural” representation of two plants from a copy of Dioscorides’ De Material Medica from thirteenth-century Baghdad; it then displays leaves and flowers in works of the same materials—mostly on paper—from Iran and India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Plants as Symbols” widens the chronological scope, pulling back to the motif of the “Tree of Life” on a ninth- or tenth-century Egyptian tapestry-woven textile; it includes a poetic anthology with margins decorated by Kara Memi, the sixteenth-century Turkish illuminator; cypress trees on a fragment of an Indian silk carpet; and the ubiquitous gul u bulbul, the roses and nightingales found on Iranian objects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including a pair of ceramic-tile panels from a wall-revetment.

“Flowers of the Gunpowder Empires,” like a display of fireworks, saves some of the showiest examples for the end: floral ornament on wall-revetments and objects, often of the richest of materials, from Ottoman Turkey, Safavid and Qajar Iran, and Mughal India. Glazed polychrome ceramic tiles painted with brilliant flowers “blooming” even on the darkest of winter days in Istanbul are among the great glories of Ottoman architectural decoration. The same tulips and roses and hyacinths also pattern silk-and-metal textiles, one of the most spectacular pieces used for the cover of the exhibition-catalogue. The inscription on an openwork steel plaque from Safavid Iran stands out against a lace-like arabesque scroll; a vista of vaults opens behind the unforgettable figures of Karim Khan Zand with an Ottoman emissary, both wearing fur-lined cloaks of floral brocade; flowers bloom on the field of a Persian rug and twist upwards on large textiles of silk-velvet and shimmering gold-woven silk. And flowers bloom on every Mughal and Rajput Indian object in the last section: on garments and decorative textiles, on a bidri-ware plate and a green-and gold glass hookah, on a carpet-weight of marble inlaid with pietra dura.

If you are in, or near, Copenhagen, and plan to visit, several paths would lead you into the exhibition-gallery of the David Collection. Try to enter from the main stair-hall, so that the newly acquired Painting, “The Prophet Muhammad at the Gates of Paradise,” is at your left, while before you stands the huge bronze lotus-shaped fountain, a source of the water without which no garden—let alone the Garden of Paradise—would flourish. If you can only enjoy this little floral treasure at a distance, everything is illustrated in color in the paperback catalogue, often in great detail. Its text is in Danish only, but the photographs of architecture that introduce each section add to an appreciation of the integral place that the natural, growing world has always played in the culture of Islam.

This review has been written for the International Journal of Islamic Architecture (IJIA) and will be published in the January 2014 issue of the journal (IJIA 3.1). Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on this page are copyrighted by Intellect Ltd. For more information about IJIA and Intellect’s terms and conditions of use, please see http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=204/; http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/page/index,name=condition/