In the Cinquantenaire park in Brussels, Belgium, one finds not only the Grand Mosque –also the seat of the Islamic and Cultural Center of Belgium– but also the Cinquantenaire museum, aka the Royal Museum of Art and History. Here, a permanent and varied collection is to be found of objects hailing from the Islamic world. The collection consists of approximately 1200 objects, excluding the thousands of shards from Fustat (old Cairo) and the two hundred weapons and armour. There are 340 objects on display in the Muslim world section of the museum.
Compared to other similar museum collections, in particular those of Paris, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Lisbon and New York, the collection of the Cinquantenaire museum is rather small in size but very representative. It is also the only museum that evokes the urban cultures of the Islamic world in the Low Countries. In addition, there are also some ethnographic pieces from nomadic cultures.
The collected objects orginate from the broader area of the Islamic world between southern Spain and Northern India. The objects date from the period between the 7th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The collection consists of textiles, ceramics, glass, metals and book art, stone sculpture, calligraphy and some architecture components.
The Islam hall has two levels, with as the striking showpiece the ensemble of wooden architecture elements, taken from a small mosque from Northwest Pakistan. It was purchased in 1992 and four years later supplemented with three pillars from the same region. The reconstruction is not based on a realistic image, but rather on simplicity and accuracy. In addition, there are also some fragments of mashrabiyya’s on the walls (decorative wooden screens). In this way the visitor immediately gets in touch with the refined architectural elements from the world of islam.
The exhibition is internationally known for its famous textile collection, owing for the most part to the donation and the legacy of the patron and textile collector Isabella Errera (1869-1929). In the museum, four sets of textiles can be distinguished. The first kind is the Egyptian textile that dates from the beginning of the Muslim period and is connected to the late antique and Coptic fabrics. Some unique and undamaged pieces are a linen shirt (qamîs) with silk embroidery dating between 1150 and 1230 and a pair of silk pants (sirwâl) from the 14th century.
The second textile group are the Andalusian and Sicilian silk textiles. The refinement of the Andalusian culture can be seen in the textile piece of the 15th century Nasrid dynasty with refined geometric and calligraphic patterns.
The Turkish silk fabrics and velvet from the Ottoman period form the third group. Typical are the large, powerful motives of gold or silver on a deep carmine red background, which was obtained by using Armenian cochineal dye. The çatma-fragment characterized by a dense weaving structure of silk and gold thread is perhaps the oldest still existing Turkish velvet in the world. At the same time it gives a modern impression due to the çintamani (‘auspicious jewel’) pattern, which consists of double wave lines and trios of pierced disks in different sizes. In the Islamic world the lines symbolise tiger stripes and the dots refer to the leopard’s fur. The combination of the two motives symbolise strength and power, and the name shows the positive meaning of the pattern.
The fourth and final group includes the Iranian and Central Asian textiles. The Iranian velvet and lampas tissues slightly resemble miniatures. Other Iranian examples represent court scenes, or scenes that were immediately recognized and understood by people living in that particular era and place, like the scene with a nightingale between roses: the symbol of the lover who has joined his beloved.
The ceramic collection represents nearly all types of ceramics from the 9th to the 19th century and is considered to be complete. An example is a Syrian platter from Raqqa. It is rare by its size and by the combination of calligraphy and figuration as decoration. There is also a beautiful ensemble of ornamental ceramics from Kashan in Iran. From Turkey there are the Iznik platters and tiles and a set of unique Armenian pieces from Kütahya. Some stone objects on display are a fountain from the 12th century, originating from Ghazni (Afghanistan), and a marble headstone of an Egyptian woman’s grave from the 9th century.
At the metal arts section the helmet of Ibn Qalawun deserves particular attention. The helmet features an inscription with gold inlay which praises the Mamluk sultan Ibn Qalawun. It is a rare piece and the inscription is written in the elegant thuluth style, which is typical for the Mamluk period (1250 – 1517 in Egypt and Syria)
Art as a part of Islamic culture
The works exhibited are a representation of what is meant by Islamic art, but do not present a realistic picture of the whole of Islamic culture. After all, these are objects made by and for a limited segment of the population: the wealthy class of merchants, the urban bourgeoisie and the court of the ruling sovereign. It is therefore not appropriate to draw quick and general conclusions about the Islamic culture based on this collection.
For those who would like to visit the permanent exhibition for free, access is free every first Wednesday of the month from 1 pm. An interesting feature is that visitors are virtually guided by the Arab historian and sociologist avant la lettre IbnKhaldun. He provides contemporary information from the era concerned and his quotes are displayed throughout the exhibition. In short: history and modernity are interwoven in such a way as to almost resemble the famous textiles on display. A virtue for the eye, a blessing for the mind.
“When a visible object is harmoniously in its forms and lines,
in accordance with the matter from which it is made, …
then it’s in harmony with the soul that perceives it,
and [the soul] enjoys observing something in agreement with itself.”
– Ibn Khaldun
Practical informations: opening hours, access, admission prices.
This post is also available in: Dutch