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Unseen Masterpieces of Islamic Art Revealed
The Court of Fath "Ali Shah (r. 1798–1834) with foreign ambassadors and envoys Iran, Tehran, c.1815. Opaque water and gold on paper. Left panel: 32 x 125.5 cm; central panel: 34.3 x 52.3 cm; right panel: 31.8 x 129.5 cm. © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

LONDON, UK.-Spirit & Life, an exhibition of rare Islamic art and manuscripts never before displayed in the UK, will run this summer at The Ismaili Centre, South Kensington, London. Highlights will include miniatures from one of the finest illustrated manuscripts ever produced, the Persian epic Shahnama (The Book of Kings) and an extremely rare copy of the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina, used in Europe and the Middle East as the standard medical textbook for over 500 years.

Organised by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Spirit & Life will present treasures from the permanent collection of the Aga Khan Museum, which will open in Toronto, Canada, in 2010. The museum is an initiative of His Highness the Aga Khan, (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, who intends the museum to be a centre of education and learning dedicated to the presentation of Muslim arts and culture in all their historic, cultural and geographical diversity. Surrounded by a large landscaped park, the museum will be housed in a 10,000 square-metre building designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. The Aga Khan Museum will offer unique insights and new perspectives into Muslim civilisations.

“This exhibition of artistic masterpieces from the Islamic world underlines that the arts, particularly when they are spiritually inspired, can become a medium of discourse that transcends the barriers of our day-to-day experiences and preoccupations,” said His Highness the Aga Khan. “Many questions are currently being raised in the West about the Muslim world, with countless misconceptions and misunderstandings occurring between our contemporary societies. I hope that this exhibition will hold a special significance at a time which calls for enlightened encounters amongst faiths and cultures.”

The London exhibition will display over 165 objects from the collection showing the diversity of artistic traditions in the Muslim world. Textiles, exquisite miniatures, rare manuscripts, ceramics, precious pages from the Qur’an, scientific medical texts, books of fables, and tiles and musical instruments will be shown alongside some of the finest portraits of Ottoman sultans and Qajar shahs of the 19th century. The exhibition covers a geographical area stretching from India in the East to Morocco in the West and spans over a thousand years from the ninth to the 19th century.

“The political crises of the last few years, and the large numbers of Muslims emigrating to the West, have revealed – often dramatically – the considerable lack of knowledge of the Muslim world in many Western societies,” said Luis Monreal, General Manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). “This ignorance spans all aspects of Islam: its pluralism, the diversity of interpretations within the Qur’anic faith, the chronological and geographical extent of its history and culture, as well as the ethnic, linguistic and social diversity of its peoples. The supposed ‘clash of civilisations’ is in reality nothing more than a manifestation of mutual ignorance.”

Highlights from Spirit & Life include:

An extraordinarily rare and probably the earliest extant manuscript of volume 5 of the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) dated 1052 CE. The Canon is perhaps the single most influential text in the history of medicine. Such was its usefulness that from its origins in the early 11th century in western Iran, it was used all over the Middle East and Europe as the standard medical textbook for a period of five centuries. The Canon formed the basis of medical teaching at European universities until the beginning of modern times.

A folio from the ‘Houghton’ Shahnama, made for the Safavid ruler of Persia, Shah Tahmasp. The manuscript is decorated with 258 miniatures, attributable to almost all of the major Persian artists of the first half of the 16th century and universally acknowledged as not only one of the finest illustrated manuscripts of any period but also among the greatest works of art in the world. The Shahnama or Book of Kings is the Persian national epic by Firdausi, who spent almost 35 years composing the 30,000 couplets, finally completing it in about 1010 CE.

A page from the Blue Qur’an, one of the most extraordinary and most luxurious Qur’an manuscripts ever produced. Created for the Fatimid imam-caliphs ruling North Africa in the early 10th century, it is a wonder of Islamic calligraphy.

A dervish’s begging bowl made in the form of a boat. Such bowls were carried by itinerant dervishes. This refined and beautiful bowl is one of five important Safavid examples from the end of the 16th century and has a wide band of elegant inscriptions in Persian and several bands of floral interlace decoration.

An 11th century bird incense burner. A masterpiece of medieval bronze casting, it was probably made in the Islamic Mediterranean. Metalwork incense burners were made in a variety of shapes including animal forms such as lions and birds and the incense was emitted through the pierce-work decoration of their bodies.

A late 10th or early 11th century lustre jar. Produced in Egypt, the jar appears to be the only surviving example of this type that is intact. The beautiful decoration consists of knotting or braiding cables and foliated kufic calligraphy.

Albarellos (apothecary jar for medicaments) were popular in Syria in the 14th century, and such jars were produced in large quantities both for the home market and for export to Europe, especially Italy. This example has an armorial shield which is an azure on argent variant of the arms of the city of Florence.

A slip-decorated pottery dish decorated with geometry and calligraphy and produced in the eastern Iranian world in the 10th century. The organised polychrome decorative programme consists of a central interlacing strapwork pattern. Colourful abstract motifs are inserted between the vertical letters of the kufic inscription.

Three folios from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri, a philosophical treatise divided into three discourses, dealing with ethics, social justice and politics. Written by Nasir al-Din Tusi, a philosopher, man of letters and one of the great intellects of medieval Iran, the subject-matter of the Akhlaq-i Nasiri did not lend itself to illustration. However, this manuscript was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 16th century and is uniquely illustrated with 17 full-page miniatures.

One of the most sumptuous and rarest examples of a complete robe from the Mongol period. The cut of the robe is typically Mongol, with its full skirt, its broad wrap-over, and the extremely long sleeves. It is likely that this robe originated in Central Asia in the late 13th or early 14th century.

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