Friday, May 14, 2004

“Caliphs and Kings: The Art and Influence of Islamic Spain,” at the Hispanic Society of America in New York, is a stunning exhibition of the hybrid arts of medieval Spain and its Islamic invaders from 711 to 1492.

The 90-object display — everything from glistening ceramics, carved ivories and woods to intricately woven silk textiles and illuminated manuscripts — traces almost eight centuries of the art and intellectual accomplishments of Islamic Spain (“al-Andalus”) culminating in Spain’s attainment of global superpower status.

Exhibit curator Heather Ecker ends the survey in the familiar, and crucial, year 1492, which saw the demise of the Nasrid civilization, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain, and the beginnings of Christian rule under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand V. With their sponsorship of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the New World, Spain stood at the cusp of the modern world.

The show opens with the painstakingly stitched 15th-century “Armorial Carpet” from Aragon. The exhibit label explains that it was woven for Maria de Castilla, queen of Aragon, and mixes geometrically styled Muslim symbols with more realistic Christian coats of arms.

The huge rug is a perfect example of the hybrid culture of the period. Miss Ecker points out that the rug and a 16th-century walnut “Chest” inlaid with tiny ivory rosettes and flowers illustrate the fondness of both Islamic and later Christian artists for intricate patterning with exotic materials.

Another extraordinary example of ivory carving in the exhibit is the gift box “Pyxis” (circa 966) from the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads, the first to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, came from Syria and ruled from 711 to 1010. Umayyad artists decorated the box with exquisitely chased and nielloed silver-gilt mounts. The poetic inscription says it contained rare and expensive perfumes of camphor, musk and ambergris.

The Umayyads also were masters of coin making. Coin minters produced dinars, the first Arabic gold coins of al-Andalus. Dirhams, the first Arabic silver coins, were made in al-Andalus in 722. “I see them as little worlds,” the curator says.

Miss Ecker’s choice of textiles, a medium far different from ivory carving and coin minting, couldn’t be better. The cloths handsomely and colorfully demonstrate that intricate patternings combined with bold geometric designs were favorites of al-Andalus patrons.

The dramatically designed silk “Textile” is one of the largest pieces from the 21/2 centuries of Nasrid rule. Geometric bands of varying widths give the piece strong linear structuring for the detailed rosettes, eight-pointed stars and flowers. The red and gold silk threads turn the piece into a golden, quivering vision of paradise.

Only the ceramics outshine the weavings. The selections begin with the Freer Gallery’s imposing and impressive cobalt-and-luster tin-glazed “Alhambra Vase” and the similar, better-preserved “Vase Neck” displayed nearby. (Some of its gold decoration is still intact.)

The cobalt-and-luster painted designs, which were used by Mudejar potters who had established themselves near Valencia, became a long-lived tradition in Islamic Spain. (Muslims who continued to live and work in Christian-held Spanish territory were called Mudejars — in Spanish Mudejares, probably from the Arabic al-mudajjanun, “those permitted to remain.”)

Ceramicists created luster, or shiny surfaces, for the elite. An exhibit label describes luster as a “post-glazing technique that deposits a very thin layer of reflective metal on a ceramic surface and was invented by potters in ninth-century Iraq.”

Containers such as the 1370s Manises “Bowl” used fanciful geometric and foliate patterns. A brilliantly hued “Deep Plate” that seems to copy metal prototypes sits nearby. Its centered heraldic shield shows the interplay of Christian and Muslim decorations.

Loosely brushed animals also were favorite motifs. The one on the back of the “Galleried Plate” hops around quite happily.

Though the organizers of “Caliphs and Kings” did not orient the show to the ordinary visitor, the sheer beauty and sensuality of the pieces could easily seduce them.

WHAT: “Caliphs and Kings: The Arts and Influence of Islamic Spain”

WHERE: Hispanic Society of America, 613 W. 155th St. (at Broadway), New York City

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17

TICKETS: Free except for groups

PHONE: 212/926-2234

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