IIS Head Librarian speaks on Patronage in Islamic Art

Drawing upon selected art works, manuscripts and miniatures from the collections of the Aga Khaninfo-icon Museum (AKM) and The Institute of Ismaili Studies, Mr Merchant recounted the exuberance and dynamism of artistic environments established from Indonesia to Spain by patrons who attracted celebrated artists to create vibrant and unique masterpieces. “It was fascinating and enlightening,” said Dr Beth Wright, Dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I especially appreciated how he put Islamic art into its historical and cultural context, and his insights on the exchange of ideas and objects between Western and Islamic cultures.”

The Blue Qur'anCommencing the lecture with a page from the famous Blue Qur’aninfo-icon, Mr Merchant noted that beautifully decorated manuscripts adorned with calligraphy were among the most significant art works supported by patrons. One of the finest Qur’an manuscripts, the Blue Qur’an is written on blue parchment in gold kufic script, and was probably commissioned by a royal patron in North Africa in the early tenth century.

Manuscript of the Qanun fi’l-tibb of Ibn Sina, vol 5 — Iran or MesopotamiaAmong scientific works in the AKM collection, Mr Merchant spoke about the earliest extant copy of the Qanun fi’l-tibb (The Canon of Medicine) by Ibn Sina. To show how this encyclopaedic text became the standard reference of medical knowledge in the western world, Mr Merchant presented an early 17th century Latin translation of the Canon from the IIS’ collection.

Besides manuscripts, patrons supported other artistic creations including glassware, metalwork, textiles, and ceramics, which were often adorned with calligraphy, arabesque, and figural motifs of birds, animals and even human faces. One of these ceramics includes an inscription comprising a tradition of Prophet Muhammad: ‘Generosity is a disposition of the dwellers of paradise.’

Biconical gold bead — Egypt or Syria, 11th century.It was also noted in the lecture that, “A most significant visual element, even today, is the patronage of buildings.” He went on to say that craftsmen were recruited from across the Muslim world to build impressive monuments that demanded superb decorations, tiled interiors and painted exteriors. This led to a discussion on geometric patterns, which were sometimes used in combination with calligraphy, arabesque, and figural motifs.

Turning to the Aga Khan Museum, which is due to open in Toronto, Canada, Mr Merchant noted that it will be dedicated to the acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts from various periods and geographies, relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Muslim communities. His Highness the Aga Khan “has identified the need for greater engagement between the East and West,” said Mr Merchant. “The primary objective of this museum is to use culture and art towards creating an educational understanding between communities; to show the diversity and the pluralism that exist within the artistic traditions of Islam.”

The lectures were made possible through the support of The Institute of Ismaili Studies, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Ismaili Council for the United States of America.