Ink, Silk, and Gold: Islamic Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on display through September 3, 2017, features masterpieces of Islamic art spanning centuries, media, and Islamic tradition. The exhibition features more than 50 items and panels of text, giving the viewer an engrossing background on Islamic history. This is part of a series of blogs that will give you context to the items in the exhibition.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the Islamic world was ruled by three great empires. Though these empires experienced times of conflict, they were continually engaged in mercantile and diplomatic interactions with one another.
The Safavid Empire
The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran and the surrounding regions from 1501 to 1726. Nearly all members of the Safavid dynasty were financial supporters of workshops featuring skilled artists. Silk textiles produced in the empire were exported to Europe, which led to conflict with the Ottoman Empire, who aimed to control the silk trade. Artists used silk to create carpets with elaborate patterns. The art of the book flourished in the region as more artists began producing single-page drawings and paintings in unique personal styles.
The Ottoman Empire
Although the Ottoman Empire was established at the end of the 13th century, it did not rise to the status of world power until its conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. At its highest point the empire ruled a territory that reached from Budapest to Baghdad and from Tabriz to Tunis, and included the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ottoman territory was located at the crossroads of trade between Asia and Europe.
The elite supported flourishing textile and ceramic industries, as well as architectural projects. Textiles were featured in Ottoman court culture as banners, wall hangings, floor coverings, and as clothing worn by rulers and courtiers. The town of Iznik, also known by its ancient name Nicaea, produced the ceramics that were abundant in elite circles. These ceramics first appeared as imitations of Chinese porcelains and then later bore distinctive Ottoman motifs and colors.
The Mughal Empire
Based in Kabul, a Mughal ruler conquered India in the early 16th century and his successors soon came to rule nearly all of the subcontinent via military tactics and inclusive policies of administration. The Mughal ruler followed the Sunni branch of Islam and oversaw a kingdom of mostly Hindus for two centuries, which resulted in the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures into one unique imperial culture. Extensive contact with Europeans also contributed to the rich culture of the Mughal Empire.
The Mughals were great patrons of the arts of the book, the copying of Persian as well as Hindu texts and creating a style of Persian, pre-Islamic Indian, and European painting illustrations. Important works of art from the Mughal Empire also include floral and figural carpets and textiles used to embellish palaces, and portraits of rulers and the elites of the empire.