Amid the furor over an anti-Islam video and new cartoons mocking the Prophet, the Louvre is opening a new wing devoted to Islamic Art.
When New York’s Metropolitan Museum reopened its Islamic wing last November, after eight years of renovation, it had been rebaptized as “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.”
The Paris museum, with its even bigger collection of Islamic art, wouldn’t dream of using such an unwieldy paraphrase. The new department, which opened to the public on Sep. 22, is simply called “Arts de l’Islam.”
It’s the first time that a substantial part of the collection --some 3,000 out of 18,000 items -- is on view under the same roof. Until now, a much smaller number had been divided among various departments.
“Under the same roof” is to be taken literally. Because the Louvre is bursting at the seams, a courtyard, the Cour Visconti, has been transformed into a two-tiered exhibition space.
The Italian architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini have covered it with an undulating glass roof which they call “the wing of a dragon fly.” Given its weight of 135 tons, this is something of an understatement.
Others have compared the roof to a flying carpet and the warm atmosphere it creates to the coziness of a Bedouin tent. Whatever you prefer, it’s an original solution and a witty wink at the Louvre’s famous glass pyramid.
Unusually for France, the government footed less than one third of the bill. About 43 million euros ($56 million) of the 98.5 million euros came from Arab royalty, 11.5 million from the Louvre’s own piggy bank and some from private sponsors.
Islamic art, as you immediately understand when you enter, is not limited to religious objects. The new wing covers the entire civilization of the Muslim world from North Africa to India in the years until 1800.
Before 1492, when the “Moors” were driven out of Spain, the Iberian Peninsula was an important center of Islamic architecture and decorative art, enriched with Gothic elements. This kind of cross-fertilization is also typical of other regions.
Nevertheless, as a stroll through the two floors makes abundantly clear, certain leitmotifs appear again and again -- floral or geometrical patterns and Arabic calligraphy. You find them on carpets, vases, pottery, book covers, ivory carvings and metal work.
One of the most impressive, certainly the biggest item is a 12-meter (40 foot) tiled wall from Ottoman Turkey covered from top to bottom with floral decorations.
Contrary to popular belief, the Koran doesn’t forbid images of living creatures. It’s obvious, though, that most Muslim artists preferred abstract ornament to the imitation of nature.
That makes the exceptions from the rule so exciting.
One of the highlights is an ivory casket from Cordoba, Spain, probably a coming-of-age present for the Caliph’s son. Just six inches high, its exterior is teeming with no less than 69 humans and animals.
Another gem is the so-called Baptistere de Saint Louis, an inlaid bronze basin with wonderful scenes from the Mamluk court in Cairo. The French royal family used it as the baptismal font for its princes.
Space and astronomy lovers will head straight to the celestial globe from 12th-century Isfahan, Persia, the oldest of the Islamic world. It’s covered with 1,025 inlaid silver dots, each one representing a star.
“Arts de l’Islam” is on permanent show at the Louvre, Place du Louvre, 75058 Paris. Information: +33-1-40-205050 or http://www.louvre.fr/en/opening-new-department-islamic-art
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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