Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 31, 2017
Sheila R. Canby, Deniz Beyazit, Martina Rugiadi, and A. C. S. Peacock Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs Exh. cat. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. 380 pp.; 462 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781588395894)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April 27–July 24, 2016
Turquoise Bowl with Lute Player and Audience. Iran (late 12th–early 13th century). Stonepaste; glazed in opaque turquoise, in-glaze- and overglaze-painted, gilded. H. 3-1⁄2 in. (8.9 cm); Diam. 7-3⁄4 in. (19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Henry G.Leberthon Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. Wallace Chauncey, 1957 (57.61.16). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art set out to elucidate how the orders of this world and the next were conceptualized and represented in the Seljuq Empire and its successor states. To a certain extent, Met curators Sheila R. Canby, Deniz Beyazit, and Martina Rugiadi delivered. With over 270 objects, Court and Cosmos is the first major exhibition on the Seljuqs in the United States, and according to Met Director Thomas P. Campbell’s preface to the exhibition catalogue, it is one of the first exhibitions in the world to focus on “the full breadth of Seljuq art produced in Iran, Anatolia, northern Iraq, and northern Syria” (vi). Canby elaborates on the importance of the show in the catalogue’s introduction. Conceived with the goal of “reintroducing” the field of Seljuq studies to the American public, Court and Cosmos offered a timely “reminder” of the significant contribution made by the Seljuqs to West Asian culture at a time when much of the dynasty’s material culture is being intentionally destroyed, specifically in northern Iraq and northern Syria.

The Seljuqs have been less popular—both among academics and curators—than other regional dynasties like the Umayyads, Ottomans, or Safavids. This is in part due to the unwieldy nature of the study of the Seljuq dynasties. The Great Seljuqs ruled from five different Iranian capitals from 1037–1153, while the Seljuqs of Rum ruled varying parts of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) between 1077 and 1308. Some scholars also consider the Artuqids (who ruled from Hasankeyf, Diyarbakir, Harput, and Mardin, 1101–1409) and the Zengids (based primarily in Aleppo, 1127–1250) to be Seljuq successor states. Most contemporary scholarship focuses either on the Great Seljuqs—and, thus, Iran and Central Asia—or the Seljuqs of Rum, yet there have been comparatively few monographs on either of the Seljuq dynasties and none that attempts to synthesize them both. The fragmented nature of the Seljuq enterprise challenges basic assumptions about the nature of empire, and much scholarship on the Seljuqs is framed according to the modern notions of borders, ethnicities, linguistic groups, and religious communities. In this respect, Court and Cosmos made a good effort in linking the regions and temporal periods that experienced varying degrees of Seljuq authority. Still, a more careful explanation of what it meant to be “Seljuq” would have clarified why the Artuqids and Zengids had such a dominant presence in the exhibition and were considered Seljuq “successor states,” while other regional dynasties whose objects were also featured in the exhibition were not acknowledged as such.

Organized into six sections—“Sultans of East and West,” “The Courtly Cycle,” “Science, Medicine, and Technology,” “Astrology, Magic, and the World of Beasts,” “Religion and Literary Life,” and “The Funerary Arts”—Court and Cosmos brought together a diverse range of impressive objects, offering insights into the daily experiences and worldview of the elite in the later medieval Middle East. The captivating sensory enterprise offered by the exhibition was supported by the presentation of a large number of visual expressions of power, such as coins, statues, and works inscribed to patrons; objects associated with the daily life of the privileged, including bath accessories, jewelry, dishware, and incense burners; tiles, trays, and ceramic models; transportable objects associated with aspects of faith, magic, and medicine; and numerous illuminated manuscripts. The range of materials used to fabricate the objects—brass, ceramic, glass, paper, silk, silver, stone, stonepaste, stucco, wood—and their diverse color palettes enhanced the visitors’ sensory experience of a richly textured space. While no loans were made from major collections of Seljuq art in Iran, Russia, or Turkey, the curators succeeded in securing thirteen loans from Turkmenistan never before seen outside the country, as well as many important objects from fifty-one other public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. Still, the strength of the exhibition lay more in its capacity to present an important region in the late medieval (Islamic) world than it did in assigning specificity to the Seljuq experience. Frankly, the latter task would seem almost impossible given that so many of the objects were neither made by individuals nor commissioned by patrons who considered themselves part of the Seljuq enterprise.

Among the most dramatic objects featured in Court and Cosmos were those that opened the exhibition space: two life-sized pairs of thirteenth-century guards, placed just beyond the entryway to the exhibition, beckoned visitors to enter. The androgynous faces of these four architectural figures represent the ideal beauty of the time period. Dressed in coats, headdresses, and jewels, with decorated swords in hand, the figures likely belonged to an elite home where their exquisiteness would have impressed visitors. From the outset, both with these figures and with the nearby examples of coinage, the curators were able to communicate that figural representation of human beings was an important aspect of the Seljuq visual language and inherent to essential objects of daily life. An explanation of why this kind of representation was unique or important either within an Islamic or a medieval context was never made clear to the visitor, although the visual conversation on figural representation permeated the exhibition.

The impressive Blacas Ewer, for example, engraved with depictions of the activities of the elite lifestyle, was produced in Mosul in 1232 and probably made for Badr al-Din Lu’lu’, an Armenian slave-turned-ruler of the Zengid dynasty. The brass work (projected on a nearby wall) was similar to that of other objects from this region and included figural representations of men and beasts, floral motifs, and exquisite Arabic calligraphy, but stood out in the exhibition due to the artistic mastery of inlaid metal techniques and the range of stylistic capacities.

At the entrance to the section “The Funerary Arts,” an anthropomorphic “Baba” figure (from Western Turkmenistan) exemplified ancestral figural representations that were honored at funerary sites from Siberia to the Black Sea. In this room of highly stylized tombstones and funerary boxes, replete with floral imagery and Arabic inscriptions, the Baba offered an opportunity to contemplate the complexities of the Seljuq spiritual and visual worlds. Still, the absence of a detailed discussion of Islam or figural representation in Islamic art trivialized the viewer’s contextualization of the exhibited imagery.

Thanks to the several pieces associated with Badr al-Din, the viewer was able to engage with the different kinds of artistic and intellectual currents that enriched the elite individual’s daily life. The copy of the tenth-century Arabic language Kitab al-aghani (a well-loved series of entertaining stories in the medieval world) was one such piece. Presented to Badr al-Din in Mosul in 1217–19, this brightly illuminated manuscript suggests that this ruler was very much engaged with the arts. However, in highlighting this manuscript, the curators missed an opportunity to discuss the complex linguistic sphere of the late medieval Islamic world. This region was not just home to an Arabic culture, but one in which Arabic, Persian, and Turkish were used concomitantly, albeit with each applied to specific social and cultural spaces.

The section “Astrology, Magic, and the World of Beasts” portrays Seljuq interests in the occult, which represented a political strategy during a time of various social anxieties—among others, eclipses, comets, earthquakes, war, and unfair taxation. This interest in magic and superstition was not unique to the Seljuq experience, but the exhibition did succeed in showing how engagement with magic and superstition could take place on a personal level in the late medieval Islamic world, in the form of talismans worn on a person’s body, as well as in scholarly realms. The beautifully illuminated Daqa‘iq al-haqa‘iq (Degree of Truths by Nasir al-Din Muhammad) composed in Aksaray in 1272 was presented to one of the youngest and last of the Seljuq Sultans of Rum and contains five different treatises in Persian that deal with the study of astrology, angels, talismans, and magic. The exhibition also featured several pages from the highly illustrated Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices composed by Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari at the Artuqid court in the late twelfth century. Viewers had an opportunity to observe the exciting world of medieval mechanical invention in gorgeously illustrated texts, alongside versions of early astrolabes. A striking omission from the exhibition was any detailed reference to the Sufi movements that experienced a zenith during this time period, many of whose leaders and participants composed, read, and shared texts that dealt with topics related to cosmos, the occult, and various other sciences.

Curating an exhibition on the Seljuqs is a daunting task, especially without loans from some major collections. But given the cultural and political complexities of the Seljuq enterprise, the curators might have adapted a broader, less polity-focused approach to the objects. Viewing Islamic art and culture across regions and dynasties, and moving beyond the limitations of modern borders, ethnicities, and linguistic groups, Court and Cosmos might have transcended the conceptual boundaries that have long stymied Seljuq scholarship, presenting a more nuanced, accurate view of the late medieval Islamic world. Moving outside the politically and linguistically charged lenses that define the modern Middle East, such an approach would have allowed viewers to see the Seljuq Empire as the elites who lived inside it likely did: as a region united by specific cultural and political currents, and engaged within a diverse, ever-expanding Islamic world.

Rachel Goshgarian
Assistant Professor, History Department, Lafayette College