Magazine article The Spectator

Winged Horses, Fiery Haloes

Magazine article The Spectator

Winged Horses, Fiery Haloes

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1

L'etrange et le merveilleux en terres d'Islam

(Louvre, Paris, till 23 July)

Syrian friend who accompanied the Pope round the Umayyad mosque in Damascus a few weeks ago was very disappointed that John Paul II neither visited Saladin's tomb nearby nor asked forgiveness for the Crusades - His Holiness had, after all, my friend remarked, been asking forgiveness of virtually everybody else recently.

About as tenacious a source of misunderstanding between the West and the Middle East as the Crusades is the idea that Muslims, as if they were all Calvinists, and Buddha-bashers to a man, have always imposed a blanket ban on images. Organised by the Louvre's Islamic art department and containing exhibits from eight European museums, L'etrange et le merveilleux en terres d Islam ("The strange and wonderful in Islamic lands'), a magical and very eclectic exhibition, nobbles that legend and opens a window on the importance of the fanciful and the fantastic in a religion often assumed to be austere and supremely rational.

Housed in the Hall Napoleon underneath the Louvre's pyramid entrance until 23 July, the show commences with an evocation of the Arabian Nights, that supreme source of Western fantasising about Eastern lasciviousness. The Frenchman Antoine Galland provided the first-ever translations of these tales - originally oral and first transcribed in Arabic during the 13th century - between 1704 and 1712. With the poetry and the saucy bits left out and written up in a style aimed to please the rarefied taste of the French aristocracy, `Les Mille et Une Nuits' was a tremendous hit first with the court of Louis XIV and then with the rest of Europe.

The Louvre is displaying Arab and Turkish manuscripts and the work of modern European illustrators. Leon Carre's pictures for a 12-volume edition in 1926 featured objects which were already in the Louvre. Several, as diverse as a 19th-century French reproduction of a mosque lamp, a 14th-century tile from Samarkand and a 12th-century Persian candlestick, are on show alongside Carre's pictures.

A constant inspiration for Islamic artists, as the next room shows, was Aja ib alMakhluqat (`The marvels of created things'). Written during the 13th century by the Persian-based Arab astronomer, geologist and mineralogist Al-Qazwini, it describes not only the structure of the heavens, from constellations to angels, but also the geography of the earth and the animals and monsters, humans and giants thereon. …

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