The Wonders of the Islamic Worlds of Art and Science, Illuminated ; Using Light as a Theme, Exhibition Showcases 150 Masterworks and Objects

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Using light as a theme, an exhibition in Seville, Spain, showcases 150 masterworks and objects.

Four years ago, when the curator Sabiha Al Khemir started preparing an exhibition on the role of light in Islamic art, her plan was to select artworks and objects that visually expressed light or had a direct scientific connection with it.

But as she proceeded with her research, Ms. Al Khemir, a Tunisian- born expert on Islamic art, started expanding the show's scope because "I got to understand that Islam makes a clear link with light even when that link is far from apparent," she said in an interview here. "Islam is also very much about the light of knowledge that fights the ignorance of darkness," she added.

The result is an exhibition of 150 works, "Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World," which runs through Feb. 9 at the Fundacion Focus-Abengoa, a cultural center, and spans eleven centuries.

There is a bowl from Iran with stylized blue sun-rays -- so deceptively simple that it looks as if it might be the work of a modern artist when in fact it was made in the 13th century. Other objects showcase the way light hits their surface, such as a set of translucent rock crystal chess pieces made in Egypt. There are also several dishes and bottles painted in luster, a technique that originated on glass around the fifth century but was then adapted and applied to ceramics in Iraq about three centuries later, using metal oxides like silver and copper that were mixed with clay or ochre.

Many of the works on display have long been considered Islamic masterpieces and are on loan from well-known institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, the Bodleian Library of Oxford University or the Alhambra Museum in Granada, Spain. Others, however, come from private collections, like the Liechtenstein-based Furusiyya Art Foundation, and some of these works have never before been on public display.

The exhibition is carefully balanced between art and science. Islamic geometry, for instance, was "an endless permutation of the star," Ms. Al Khemir said, as showcased in a ceiling section from the mausoleum of Sidi Ahmed Tijani in the Moroccan city of Fez that features a sixteen-pointed star at the center of each panel.

Astronomy, with items from astrolabes to nocturnals and lunar volvelles, also features prominently. Lunar volvelles acted as an extension of sundials and allowed time to be computed after sunset.

Another section of the exhibition devoted to the art of healing highlights the way Islamic physicians doubled as philosophers, producing medical instruments while writing voluminous encyclopedias. The exhibition is housed in what was a health care center, the Hospital de los Venerables, founded in the 17th century to care for aging or poor priests. …


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