Early Islamic Art

One of the first efforts in my course on Islamic art and architecture is to convince the students that figurative art is not prohibited in Islam. I make them chant “at some times, in some regions, and in some contexts figurative art was prohibited.” Maybe it sinks in.

One of the most luscious examples of early wall painting has recently been restored – the walls and ceilings of a fortress-palace from the early 8th century, Qusayr’Amra. Go look!

The Roman Empire didn’t fall. But how do you teach students that?

The historical model of Decline and Fall lives. Of course, it’s an endless problem in the historiography — we learn new things that confirm or undermine old things (especially from archaeology), scholarly fashions change, and people still keep writing books. There was some discussion at Marginal Revolution¬†yesterday that reminded me of something I’m doing this fall in Art and Architecture of the First Christian Millennium* (ARTH 270).

Most of the students in this course will be majors in art history, studio art, or architectural studies, with a sprinkling of other humanities; they typically don’t have a very strong background in European history. I think most of them are sure that the Roman Empire fell, and I bet that a majority believe in barbarian invasions as the cause of that fall. I’m also fairly sure that they believe that this process was fairly swift (that’s what fall implies – an event). Whether they know anything about decline I am much less certain. The last time I polled folks in this course (3 years ago?) almost no one knew who Gibbon was or the title of his book. Me, I prefer changed slowly into two different things, one centered on Constantinople and one without a coherent center, but decline will do in a pinch.

So, I’ve tried using a history textbook as a supplement: Roger Collins’ Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. It’s pretty good and it’s not unreadable – but it’s way too long for a resource book.

This year I’m using a popular history: William Rosen’s Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire. I think this will have a number of advantages. It’s a third of the price of Collins, and available for Kindle and on Audible! Though the main focus is fairly narrow (early 6th Century), Rosen provides lots of background, and tells it in a fairly orthodox fashion that I won’t have to correct much. The comparative angle – Rosen is interested in how China was like and unlike the Roman and Persian Empires – is interesting. The most difficult part will be getting the students not to adopt Rosen’s fairly deterministic story — bubonic plague enabled the rise of Islam — but I’ll do my best.

Best of all, I think it’s a fairly good introduction to the later Empire in the West before its decline and to how the Empire in the East held on.

We’ll see – every iteration is a new adventure!

*Unfortunately, I created that course at a time when we were going in for evocative course titles. I’d be better off with Early Medieval Art & Architecture, but that would involve filling out paperwork.


Zombie Error – Islam Forbids Depictions of Muhammad.

I hope that alumni/ae of Art 249 groan when they read this in the New York Times:

Islam forbids even respectful depictions of Muhammad, to avoid idolatry.

As they learn to say in that class, some schools of Islam in some periods forbid depictions of Muhammad. Because otherwise, why is it that we have depictions of Muhammad in art created by and for Muslims? Go here to see my quick list of 10 of these in the HWS image collection – and we’re not a big university and I only teach Islamic Art and Architecture (Art 249) every once in awhile.

All Saints Day – cutting the head off a Zombie Error.

Someone offered me a platform and I’m gonna say something!
The Colleges’ organist runs a monthly event at the Chapel called “Music, Meditation and Munchies.” She usually plays a selection of seasonally appropriate organ music (occasionally there are other musicians), someone (usually a faculty member) offers a brief reflection, and there are treats. Today is All Saints Day and here’s what she’s playing (subject to last minute timing revisions):
Jean Langlais–Prelude for a Saints Day
Clarence Dickinson–Joy of the Redeemed (based on O Quanta Qualia)
John Weaver–Sine Nomine (which intertwines the hymn For all the Saints with “When the Saints Go Marching In”)
I’m giving the meditation. Mainly I’m showing resurrection, judgment, and entry into Heaven scenes from the tympanum sculpture at Autun, France, and the van der Weyden’s Beaune Altarpiece.
However – since someone asked me to say something about All Saints I’m not going to resist explaining that Halloween is not in its origins a pagan festival. Yes, I’m going to play the old “Mediterranean Popes didn’t give a damn about local Celtic festivals” card. It won’t work, it never does, but there’s no honor in letting people believe that medieval people believed the world was flat.
Yes, there were catch-all festivals for otherwise uncelebrated martyrs as early as the 4th Century in the eastern Mediterranean (I think that most of our sources are Syrian Greek or Syriac). That holiday was celebrated in mid-May, as it was in Rome in the 7th century. In 609, the Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to the popes as a church (I need to go read whatever the document is for that one!) and Boniface IV dedicated it as St. Mary and All Martyrs on May 13th of that year. By the way, it’s a commonplace of people in my end of the Middle Ages, I don’t know how well-supported, that this was the first temple building just flat turned into a Church. Oh, well – that shows that a feast of All Martyrs or All Saints was being celebrated by a bunch of non-Celts in the Mediterranean quite early.
Gregory III (who died in 741) dedicated a new chapel in Old St. Peter’s to All Saints on November 1 – transferring (at least by implication) the date of celebration in the diocese of Rome (and perhaps Italy) to that day. Gregory IV around 840 extended the feast to the Church in the West, what we nowadays think of as making a revision to the Universal Calendar. Still no sign of Celts or hollow turnips.
So the juxtaposition of Samhain and All Saints Day is just that – a juxtaposition, not an adoption or adaptation by the Church of a pre-existing Celtic holiday, unless you want to think that there were Celtic pagans living in central Italy in the early 8th century celebrating Samhain.
Oh – here’s another stake in the heart – the origins of the Christian festival of All Saints is not a metaphorical harvest festival or seasonal transition – especially the harvest of the dead – since the festival was in origins a May festival. Though the 9th century Pope might conceivably have had such an idea (though to believe so you have to also bear in mind the difference between November in Italy and in northern Europe in terms of Labors of the Months), the 4th century Syrians certainly didn’t. It’s not a bad metaphor (there are plenty of vintage=judgment metaphors in the New Testament), but that’s not behind this date.
We’ll see how it goes. As anyone who has been watching television lately knows, it’s hard to stop a zombie – and even if you do, there are more coming up the street.

da Vinci Code

Talk about a waste of two and a half hours! I just went to the da Vinci Code at the Smith Opera House (a 2nd run theater, so I only paid $5). It was as bad as I’d heard – though my colleague Elena Ciletti is right that the scene of the bishops screaming at each other at the Council of Nicaea is almost worth the price of admission. And concessions are cheap at the Smith, too.
Sad sad sad, if anyone takes that kind of tripe seriously enough that his or her ‘faith is shaken.’
And if you know someone for whom that’s true, send ’em a copy of De-Coding Da Vinci, by Amy Welborn.
Gosh! I don’t know what offended me more – the Chick Tracts view of Constantine or the idea that Isaac Newton and the Catholic Church had anything to do with each other. The conflation of the Inquisition and the Witch Hunts? The ‘art history’? Oh – I don’t know. Tripe. It wasn’t worth sitting through even to see what all the fuss was about.

Images of Muhammad

Here’s my little linklist of images of Muhammad — just remember, NOT all Muslims at all times and in all places have banned images of the Prophet.
And please don’t buy the “it’s a Shi’i thing” argument immediately — Persia didn’t become a majority Shi’a culture until the Safavids, which dynasty doesn’t kick in until 1500 — Iraq was the center of devotion to that cause. Check the date and read up on the object before assigning Sunni/Shii identity.
I am much more sympathetic (as a nonspecialist, I remind you, but someone who has read a LOT) to the argument that it’s a Sufi symptom, but Sufism crosses all those boundaries.

Winter and Christianity got you down?

So – here you are a nice non-Christian who quails even at ‘happy holidays’ — what do you do? And baby, it’s cold outside. Well, you could go to the Brooklyn Museum and look at what synagogues had on their floors in the 7th century of the so-called “Common” era (such denial!). I’ll be going soon, but then it’s my period and I love the interaction between the early synagogues (though this isn’t really so early) and early church architecture. Sadly, the link isn’t very picture rich, but if it stops even one person from believing that pre-modern Jew’s didn’t decorate using figural art, it’s a start.

Twelve of the mosaic panels that will be on display were part of the sanctuary floor of the synagogue in Hammam Lif, Tunisia (the ancient Punic city of Naro, later the Roman Aquae Persianae), the primary subjects of which are Creation and Paradise. The Latin inscription on the floor panels indicates that Julia of Naro gave the floor to the community. Two menorahs flank the inscription. Included are depictions of a tree in Paradise, sea animals and birds in a scene portraying Creation, and symbolic birds and baskets that relate to the themes of Creation and the coming of the Messiah. Decorative motifs include birds and fruits. The remaining nine panels come from other rooms in the building and other nearby buildings. They depict animals, a male figure, and a female figure.

That one’s a zombie error as persistant as “Muslims don’t depict Muhammad,” and as hard to kill, depite the enormous pile of data I can hand students. Another nice touch about this one is the inscription crediting a female donor, cheefully undercutting lots and lots of assumptions about the “status of women” in Judaism or Late Antiquity. Repeat after me: there is no such thing as ‘the status of women’ — there are differences between being an elite woman and any number of types of non-elite woman. That’s the entire theme of my “Women and Art in the Middle Ages” course; despite primary and secondary reading and class discussion it sometimes doesn’t penetrate the all too modern mind of some students.

Images of the Prophet Muhammad – a Zombie Error

So – are images of the Prophet Muhammad illicit in Islam? From what some people do and say you might think so.
Not so fast. This is a classic zombie error – a commonplace belief that will. not. die!
I am not a specialist in Islamic art, but I teach an occasional low-level survey of the field at these Colleges, where we have an excellent Visual Resources Collection for a school of our size, a collection which is unfortunately for your visual delight very observant of copyright laws, so I can’t post any pictures. I popped some terms into the search engine and came up with this list of paintings of the Prophet Muhammad executed by Muslims that we happen to own slides of; this is not an exhaustive list!
So, journalists, don’t tell us this is a taboo subject matter in Islam. The physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad may be a taboo subject matter in some sects of contemporary Islam, but let’s all be clear — this is not a universal prohibition.
Here are LOTS of examples for you arranged in chronological order:
From Rashid al-Din’s Jami al Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) – here’s a page from the Met (with pictures) explaining some history of the book.
—–Khalili Collection Ms 727, Rashid al-Din’s Compendium of Chronicles, f3a: Muhammad conquers Mecca, 1314, painted Iran.
—–Edinburgh University Library MS Arab 20, Rashid al Din’s Compendium of Chronicles, Scene of the Birth of Muhammad, 1315, painted Iran. The baby Muhammad has a visible face. Here’s a link to an image of ONE folio, though not one showing Muhammad.
—Topkapi Sarayi Library, Istanbul, B.282 Kulliyyat-i Tarikhi of Hafiz-i Bru, folio 171A: Muhammad Conquers Mecca, 1415-1416, painted Afghanistan — Muhammad’s face is a golden wash of fire and he stands in front of a gold background. F 169A shows Ali storming a fortress.
—Topkapi Sarayi Library, Istanbul, MS Hazine 2154, F 107:Muhammad describing Jerusalem, 1400-50, painted Iran — FULLY FACED Muhammad.
—Paris, Bib Nat, SupplTurc 190, Hari-Malik Bakhshi, Mi’rajnama, folio 34B: Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel, 1425-50, painted Afghanistan. Fully faced Muhammad, both Muhammad and Buraq encased in flames.
—Khalili Collection MSS 620, The Giant Uj* and the Prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, 15th Century book, painted Iraq – click this link, choose Publications, choose Vols XXV-XXVI, scroll down – it’s the image in the left margin. I can’t find the folio information without going to our library and the Khalili collection doesn’t allow access to pages deep in the directory. Sorry.
—London, British Museum. Mi’raj, 1497, painted Iran. The thumbnail image I can see looks like a fully-faced Muhammad, but it won’t enlarge and I’m not sure.
—Worcester Art Museum, page from a Khamseh of Nizami, Mi’raj, Muhammad on Buraq, 1550, painted Iran. Here’s a link to a page from the book, but like the Edinburgh link not to the correct page. It begins to make me wonder if the curators are avoiding controversy by keeping the Muhammad images off the internet?
—Freer Gallery, Washington, Jami, Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones), F 275A, Mi’raj, Muhammad on Buraq, painted Iran, 1556-65. Go here, scroll to Arts of the Islamic World, choose the last virtual exhibition — your tax dollars at work!! Choose the first poem of the 7 – “Chain of Gold.” The Ascent of Muhammad (the Mi’raj) is the 4th page in. There’s a nice note on the use of the veiled prophet (anyone from St. Louis reading? That’s where it comes from.).
—Topkapi Sarayi Library, Istanbul, MS.Hazine 1221, Kitab Siya-i Nabi (Life of the Prophet), multiple scenes from the life, including the Birth, Call by Gabriel, the Call to Prayer from the top of the Kaba, the Mi’raj, and the Death of the Prophet, 1594, painted Turkey.
Some other useful things
Here is a useful piece on the Night Journey of Muhammad, the Mi’raj, from Wikipedia. Perhaps its explanation of the mystical content will help you understand why this is such a common IMAGE of Muhammad.
The Wikipedia article on Buraq, the steed of Muhammad, even has a picture optimistically described as “public domain.” I don’t recognize it (it’s not a great reproduction and, like I said, I’m not a specialist). It shows a veiled Muhammad.
*Uj is, I think, Og of Bashan in the Hebrew versions.

Archaeology Explodes History, Confirms Myth

Well, that would be slightly more inflammatory than the Guardian’s Palace find lends weight to myth, but not, on the whole, inaccurate. Of course folks who keep up are seldom TOO surprised by archaeology, but that’s not the history people study in school. Most people are still cheerfully assured that the whole Romulus and Remus thing as a myth and/or legend. Now I’m not saying that I believe that Rhea Silvia was impregnated by Mars (princesses have been using that line to explain unwanted pregnancies for a long time) or that the she-wolf story is true, but I see no reason to practice the hermeneutic of suspicion to the degree that the 19th century found useful and which lingers — oh, it lingers. There’s nothing more depressing than the Zombie Errors of textbooks. As someone who specializes in the world before A.D. 1000 I have trained myself to insert “currently no excavated” between the “no” and “evidence” in “there is no evidence that. . . .”
There have been precious few new texts discovered since the late 18th century (you should have seen the interest on the list serves about an unpublished 5th/6th century Procopius of Gaza text and the doubts thereafter last month); what we’ve learned from archaeology in the last 100 years is still being digested — even as more platesful of evidence are served forth.
Of course the evidence of the spade (and the dendrochronologist) must be evaluated critically, and the popular press isn’t the place to do that — but over and over again text-based histories written before archaeology are found wanting. I shudder when I think that Gibbon is still in print. Worse, his monument of great prose is available as an audiobook (no links. I HOPE you won’t listen.).

What I’m Reading

One of the best things about being a professor is getting to have the library order books one would otherwise have to order for oneself. Yay, budgets! We just got a reprint of Elliot Rose’s very useful Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism. If you’re regularly pestered by students who think that Wicca has high historical credibility (whatever it may be as a belief system or means of life orientation) or — God help you — that Margaret Murray was right about a Dianic Witch Cult, then this is the book for you.
Rose was both a real historian of (much of) the period he wrote about (unlike Murray, who was trained as an Egyptologist) and was a good writer on top of that. There’s a nice foreward by Richard Kieckheffer, who knows a lot about the subject, too.
A Razor for a Goat is hardly where you should stop (of the more recent folks I love Carlo Ginzburg best, though I don’t always believe him), but it’s a great place to start.