'Pearls on a String' at the Walters Art Museum offers a glimpse into Islamic royal courts from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries

The Walters' "Pearls on a String" makes connections between 16th, 17th, 18th century art and artists' lives

Light filtered through a 17th-century white marble jali screen, and an intricate geometric pattern illuminated the floor. The jali screen, part of the Walters Art Museum's "Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts," might have once adorned a Mughal window, separating a room from a larger space, a royal reception room perhaps, yet allowing fresh air, perfumed scents, and—most important—the sounds of conversation to pass. Slow-moving passersby might capture something from the lives behind the screen, filtered through the Mughal pattern.

I was such a passerby as I walked around "Pearls," which is on display through Jan. 31, 2016. Many Islamic art exhibits organize objects—typified by calligraphy and military hardware—into chronological sets representing specific eras. "Pearls" departs from this approach, and is instead designed around three Muslim personalities: the writer Abu'l Fazl from the 16th-century Mughal court of Akbar the Great; the artist Muhammad Zaman from the 17th-century Safavid court of Shah Sulayman; and the 18th-century Ottoman ruler who patronized art and invention, Sultan Mahmud I.

"Pearls" is set up in a small, semicircular space on the first floor of the museum. Organized into three vignettes representing each personality—the poet, the artist, and the patron—the exhibit attempts to "retrieve individual voices of the past through the images they made and the words they wrote," Amy Landau, the Walters' associate curator of Islamic and South Asian art, explained to me after the press tour.

The challenge for Landau, and for visitors to the exhibit, is that making connections between the artwork and the lives of the artists requires reading the wall text. True to the exhibit's focus on personal narratives, most of the objects—manuscripts, illustrations, paintings, and personal effects—are small and require close examination. The wall text weaves together the story lines of its protagonists, their artwork, and the royal courts they served, but with more than 20,000 words of text and object labels, a casual reader might be introduced to the characters but miss the plot.

As an American Muslim whose parents immigrated from India, I was excited to explore the first vignette which dealt with writer Abu'l Fazl in the royal court of Akbar the Great.

Muslim descendants of the Mongols from Central Asia ("Mughal" is the Persian word for "Mongol") ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 16th century, and Akbar is probably the most famous Mughal ruler. Said to be illiterate, he nonetheless was a lover of books, history, and story. He commissioned a detailed recording of the history of his rule, and the royal biographer Abu'l Fazl became a close confidant and adviser to the Mughal ruler. That commission became the Akbarnama, a three-volume, expansive narrative produced by Abu'l Fazl over the course of seven years. Written in Persian and illustrated by 49 royal artists, the Akbarnama is rich in details about Akbar's birth, lineage, accession to the sultanate, and the battles he waged to expand his empire and crush rebellion from the native Hindu populace.

The exhibit doesn't include the Akbarnama, but it does have an illuminated frontispiece in watercolor and ink on gold paper from the Akbarnama, and several paintings of scenes from Abu'l Fazl's work. The illustrations are intimate, with subdued colors, and clear, soft outlines—one scene depicts courtiers lined up nervously awaiting word on Akbar's recovery from chickenpox, and another shows a bowing Akbar, receiving his mother on her return from Kabul. The wall text accompanying each illustration connects people to people, people to events, and events to history, with many of the connections woven throughout Abu'l Fazl's Akbarnama.

I was taken aback when I saw the bronze statue of the Hindu deity Krishna and other sculptures and images of Hindu mythology in this vignette, because Islam is radically monotheistic. These statues and sculptures on display "reflect the historical realities of Abu'l Fazl and his peers," according to Landau, because these objects "were among the everyday visual and mental associations of Mughal society." Akbar is known in history for the pluralism he espoused during his rule, and "Pearls" features several paintings of Akbar holding court with priests and theologians representing India's many religions. Toward the latter part of his rule, Akbar promoted his own religion called "Din-i Ilahi," a combination of Islam, Hinduism, and other philosophies; the architect of this new religion was Abu'l Fazl. There is no historical record of Akbar publicly renouncing Islam in favor of Din-i Ilahi, and "Pearls" curator Amy Landau said she decided against mentioning Din-i Ilahi because it had only 19 adherents and little is known about it.

Clearly "Pearls" is promoting Akbar as an example of a progressive, tolerant Muslim ruler, the hero of a historical counternarrative to the extremism and violence of Muslim groups like ISIS. Examples of religious tolerance and coexistence arising from within Islam abound throughout Muslim history, but Akbar, instead, sought a radical unification of beliefs outside the Islamic tradition. By not mentioning Din-i Ilahi, visitors to "Pearls" will miss the fact that Akbar's syncretism also represents an extreme.

Persia in the 17th century wasn't nearly as multi-religious as Akbar's India, but the ruling Safavid empire was looking westward—to Christian Europe—for alliances and inspiration.

The space occupied by the exhibit's second vignette focuses on painter Muhammad Zaman's life and work at the Safavid court in present-day Iran. While the small exhibit area is encircled by a backlit scrim of the domed "Eight Paradises" palace built by Zaman's imperial patron Shah Sulayman, rugs with images illustrating the intertwined Muslim and Christian stories woven through the silk, and small-scale paintings of men and women courting in lush gardens, this space is dominated by a projection of Zaman's painting featuring Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus—figures revered by Muslims. I had never seen a painting of the holy family done by a Muslim painter—Islam prohibits depicting humans and animals—so once again "Pearls" was expanding forcefully my definition of Islamic art. Zaman's "farangi-sazi" painting style—literally "made in the Frankish [i.e. European] style"—brought the three-dimensionality, perspective, modeling, shading, and illumination of Europe's Renaissance oil paintings to the Persian patrons and elite. The Safavids were enamored with Europe, and so they commissioned painters like Muhammad Zaman to paint their portraits in the farangi-sazi style, complete with breeches, pale skin, and a cup of wine in hand.

The final, third pearl in the narrative string connecting artists and their royal patrons might fittingly be called (to borrow Landau's phrase) "Ottoman bling." Sultan Mahmud I ruled the Ottoman empire from 1730 to 1754 when European industry and military technology had eclipsed the vast Muslim caliphate which once threatened it. The sultan preferred the arts over military conquest, however. He "had a fetish for sparkly objects that were really well designed," Landau explained, as we marveled at the star attraction of "Pearls": Mahmud's dazzling, excessively flamboyant long gun, whose every inch is covered in gold, gilded silver, nephrite, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Mahmud loved gadgets, so the stock of this working rifle opened to reveal bejeweled writing instruments and a brilliant, gem-encrusted dagger, symbolic of both marksmanship and penmanship.

The gun makes all the other "bling" in this vignette—fancy flintlock pistols, miniature musical European-made cabinet clocks, pen boxes decorated with floral and fruit motifs in a style known as "Ottoman Baroque"—seem a bit subdued by comparison. The inclusion of European luxury goods in this section of "Pearls," some custom made for royal Ottoman buyers, shows how the 500-year-old Islamic Empire recognized that, by the 18th century, it was in the long shadow of Europe and its Renaissance.

I found my walk through "Pearls on a String" akin to peering into the open spaces in that Mughal jali screen, looking into private chambers connected to royal quarters, seeing writers poring over their manuscripts, reviewing and rewriting, artists and calligraphers closing their eyes, seeking a visual interpretation of the events of their day, and jewelers fitting rubies into the hilts of daggers. Our views into history are fragmented and filtered, like the sunlight that breaks onto the floor—skewed and transformed, but still a ray of light nonetheless.

There will be a free Islamic Arts Family Festival at the Walters on Jan. 9. For more info, visit thewalters.org

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