Art-History Detective: Examining the Art of Islam

Article excerpt

In libraries and collection rooms around the world, you might catch a glimpse of Karin Ruehrdanz scrutinizing miniature paintings and manuscripts. An art historian specializing in Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, she joined the ROM in January. Already, she is deep into studies of the relationship between text and image in hopes of reaching her ultimate goal: to establish an understanding of style and how it relates to specific periods in classical and later Islamic art from the 12th to the 19th centuries.

For some 25 years, Karin has taught Islamic art and archaeology at the universities of Halle, Weimar, Bamberg, and Philadelphia. The East German native first became intrigued with the Orient as a youngster reading about archaeological excavations. Today she does most of her own excavating in libraries, although she also spent a year in Tashkent viewing Central Asian Islamic architecture in situ.

It is only recently that she began to focus on analyzing images for what they can reveal about a text. "You can read from the illustration cycle how people understood the same text over the centuries," she notes. How the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings--the most important poetic Persian text, written around 1000 CE--was interpreted, for example, sheds light on what was important to society at the time. "It makes you wonder what was happening in the 14th century that they liked this text so much." In the following centuries, the text was illustrated in many different ways and later, whole chapters, especially the ones on Sasanian history, were neglected by painters in favour of the mythological and legendary aspects. But even during the same time periods and in the same places, styles of illustrating manuscripts differed. Karin is tracing the larger meanings behind these details, building on the findings that there were distinct styles in the Iranian cities of Herat and Tabriz as well as a completely commercial style. …