The new wing of the Louvre Museum is entirely devoted to Islamic art. The project, that costed up to a 100 million euros, was developed over 11 years and was opened in the presence of high-ranking visitors on September 22, 2012. The exhibition was financed by the French government and other generous donors such as the Saudi prince Al Waleed Bin Tala and the Moroccan king Mohammed VI. Funds were also granted by Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Azerbaijan.
The new wing harbours one of the most extensive collections of Islamic art: about 3000 impressive artifacts dating from the 7th to 19th century, from all over the world including Spain, India and South East Asia. The Louvre itself possesses some 18.000 works of art from the Islamic world.
The Louvre’s objective is to promote the mutual understanding between the West and the Muslim world and the bridging of cultural differences. It emphasizes the secular, tolerant and cultural nature of the various Islamic civilisations. Sophie Makariou, head of the Islamic art department, hopes the new wing will teach mankind more about tolerance and diversity. According to her, the world is suffering from a simplistic view of the Islamic world. There is not just one Islam, it is much more complex than that. The French president François Hollande, who was present at the opening ceremony, called it a gesture of respect for peace and a dialogue between cultures to clear up misconceptions about the West and the Muslim world.
The gallery has a giant, sail-like roof made of glass and gold-coloured sheets, inspired by a piece of silk cloth – reminiscent of the Islamic headscarf. According to Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, the architects of the roof, one might link it to a magic carpet or just golden clouds.
The term ‘Islamic art’ does not just refer to objects relating directly to the religion. The concept denotes, more generally, the art that started to develop in the 7th century in regions where Islam was the dominant religion. One should keep in mind that the Muslim world includes many countries, from Morocco to Indonesia and China, countries with their own particular cultural traditions. In the late 20th century, and even today, artists are still inspired by the Islamic world. Conversely, many parts of the Islamic world have undergone Western artistic influences. The myriad of political and cultural relations engendered an artistic dialogue that is still present today.
Islamic art covers many diverse fields such as calligraphy, painting, glass, ceramics and textiles. The new Louvre wing displays a collection of showpieces from all of these domains.
The art genre that is probably the most important achievement of Islamic culture is calligraphy. Because, in the Muslim world, the Qur’an is viewed as the direct revelation from God, the written word carries an enormous religious, cultural and artistic meaning. In addition, texts cannot feature figurative images. Already in the 7th century, the at of writing and printing developed, stressing balanced letter spacing and the design of individual characters. The texts were adorned with decorative, colourful frames and gilt letters. Calligraphers had a lot of prestige in Muslim cultural circles. Calligraphy was not only applied in texts, but also as inscriptions on many objects like bowls, cases and glass objects.
Today the art of writing still holds an important place in the art of the islamic world. Several painters refer in their work to, for instance, individual Arabic characters, compose abstract shapes with script motives, or combine calligraphic elements with other, non-figurative motives.
One characteristic of Islamic art are repetitive elements, such as the use of geometrically styled flowers or plant designs. In Islamic art, often complete surfaces like mosque and palace walls are covered with arabesques. The use of these geometrical patterns as an infinite motive should notbe seen as mere decoration, but also as the expression of a philosophical understanding of the beauty of God. Arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolise God’s transcendence, indivisibility and eternity.
The Louvre also presents numerous artfully designed objects used in mosques, like tapestries used as praying rugs, Qur’an stands and desks, Qur’an manuscripts and candlesticks from for instance the Ottoman Empire.
Especially now, with today’s often tense relations between the West and the Muslim world, this new permanent exposition may just be what the world needs.
Translated by Mark Eijkman
This post is also available in: Dutch