In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul
Nazan ÖLÇER – Oleg GRABAR
Page: 260 (large-format colour images, 26 by 36.5 cms.)
Publication Date: 1993
Publisher: Ertuğ & Kocabıyık Publication
Received Date: 27.08.2015 Acceptance Date: 30.08.2015
Online Publication Date: 28.12.2015
Copyright © Journal of Book Notices, Reviews and Translations, 2015
N. ÖLÇER – O. GRABAR, In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul. İstanbul 1993. Ertuğ & Kocabıyık Pub., 260 pages (large-format colour images, 26 by 36.5 cms.) Photographs by A. ERTUĞ. Limited Edition. Hardbound in slipcase.
In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul, is a book that contains the largest collection of full colour images with catalogue descriptions of objects in the TİEM collections that is available. For a limited edition, hardbound book containing large format colour pictures of works of art, the price, from abebooks.co.uk 550 Euros, as also from www.kitapbooks.com and Eren Kitab, is, affordable or not, typical. It contains an 11 page introduction to the museum and the context of its collections by Dr. Nazan Ölçer, the museum director and an introductory essay on the manuscript collection by its curator Şule Aksoy. There are photographs of 275 objects and of details thereof in 124 plates, 118 in full colour, 19 objects photographed in black and white (Plates 88 A-B, 89 and 106-110). The illustrations including illuminated pages from copies of the Qu’ran and other manuscripts, and exemplary objects selected from the museum’s departments dedicated to woodwork, metalwork, glasswork, stucco and stonework, tile-work and other ceramics, and carpets, of which the museum houses 1,700, including the famous Seljuk examples. There is also a table of dynasties and a 6 page bibliography. The reason for this review is that this limited edition book also carries an influential 18 page essay by Prof. Oleg Grabar entitled, “The Aesthetics of Islamic Art”, which was written for and which forms an introduction to this lavishly illustrated volume of superb examples of the works of Islamic art that are preserved today in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts-TİEM, within the remaining part of the former palace of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, in Istanbul. This essay was written to shape the window through which the well to do readers of this volume see these works made by means of art from the museum’s collections of early Islamic, Seljuk and Ottoman works, which have been carefully selected and superbly photographed and printed. This essay has also been reprinted in O. Grabar, Islamic Art and Beyond, Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Volume III, Ashgate Variorum Collected Studies Series: CS829, 2006, 335-355. ISBN: 978-0-86078-926-0 (£121.00).
Oleg Grabar (b. Strasbourg, France 1929 – d. 2011 Princeton, New Jersey) was “a respected authority on Islamic art”. He was Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA, and Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture at Harvard University, USA. His obituary in the New York Times by William Grimes, of January 12th, 2011, relates: “Through Professor Grabar’s work as a teacher, he prepared generations of art historians and museum directors who followed his lead to create new disciplines within the field of Islamic studies, expanding its scope far beyond the rather narrow limits he encountered when he entered the field”. While his obituary from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton relates, his “research over the past six decades has had a profound and far-reaching influence on the study of Islamic art and architecture,… Through his teaching and publications he left an indelible mark on almost every aspect of the study of Islamic art and architecture”, and Archnet (re-launched in 2013 is an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT (AKDC @ MIT) writes: “Oleg Grabar has done more to define the field of Islamic art and architecture, than almost anyone else alive”.
In essence, the perspective of the author of this essay is clearly revealed through the choice of the word “aesthetics” employed in the title of this essay. Trained in the French Republican education system, Strasbourg and Paris, the term “aesthetics” in respect to Islamic art perhaps came naturally. However, with the use of this word, a fundamental error in perspective in the on-going near systematic misunderstanding and misinterpretation of works of Islamic art reached a point where perhaps academic fashion and folly seem to have largely replaced thought and contextualisation as praxis. Simply put, there was not, and there could not be anything “aesthetic” about the fashioning of a work of Islamic art in the pre-modern past. This is because the nakkash-muhandis designer-engineer, made what was made by means of art, producing a representation arrived at through the intellect and maintained by traditional knowledge and practise, reflected through the designer, into design, form and colour. Art was, together with the proper understanding of it, a matter of and for the intellect, not primarily of the senses.
Consequently to understand a work produced by means of art, still remains attached to the attempt to understand the meaning embodied in a form and the reason for this form being employed by the designer of the work and implemented by the skilled craftsman, as Oleg Grabar’s father, André Nicolaevitch Grabar (Kiev, 1896–1990), an international expert on Romanesque art and the art of the Eastern Roman Empire and author of over 30 books on the early and medieval art of Bulgaria, Crete, France, Italy and Turkey, certainly knew; and which he articulated in works such as: Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins, this, within this temporal world concerns the matter of the expression by means of art of a metaphysic. André Grabar explained the role of the painter of Orthodox Christian icons thus:
“Their role can be compared to that of musical performers in our day, who do not feel that their importance is diminished by the fact that they limit their talent to the interpretation of other people’s work, since each interpretation contains original nuances”, such is the case for any craftsman, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, as it is of course the case, that the Truth is not diminished by either interpretation or repetition, as, being concerned with this fundamental matter the theme remains the same. The problem arises only when this is forgotten or ignored and the wrong terminology is unfortunately employed in addressing pre-modern works of art, Islamic or other, thereby obscuring their raison d’être, as is for example the case with this use of the term “aesthetics”, thereby relating the works so described to feeling and the senses, rather than to the intellect and to meaning and, in so-doing, obscuring the meaning that these works were made to support, convey and to reflect, in so far as that may be possible.
It is therefore reasonable to suggest that the word metaphysics, rather than the word “aesthetics” would have been better employed for the title and subject of this essay, as offering the appropriate introduction to an internationally important collection of Islamic art, of works, the product not of the senses, of taste and feeling and fashion, but of mind and spirit. As André Grabar knew, and as Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wrote seventy years ago:
“A conception of “art” as the expression of emotion, and a term “aesthetics” (literally, “theory of sense-perception and emotional reactions”), is a conception and a term that have come into use only within the last two hundred years of humanism. We do not realise that in considering Mediaeval (or Ancient or Oriental) art from these angles, we are attributing our own feelings to men whose view of art was quite a different one, men who held that “Art has to do with cognition” and apart from knowledge amounts to nothing, men who could say that “the educated understand the rationale of art, the uneducated knowing only what they like”, men for whom art was not an end, but a means to present ends of use and enjoyment and to the final end of beatitude equated with the vision of God whose essence is the cause of beauty in all things”. There is of course no point whatsoever in “attributing our own feelings to men whose view of art was quite a different one” and if we do so, systematic misunderstanding of the object of study is, perhaps inevitably, the result. As Tehnyat Majeed of The Cleveland Museum of Art pointed out in a review of Oleg Grabar’s Islamic Art and Beyond: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Volume III in the Journal of Islamic Studies,
“Although the author’s purely secular Western perspective to explain the ‘Islamic’ element in the term (Islamic Art) may serve as a possible method amongst many, it is somewhat inadequate”.
Oleg Grabar writes in this essay: “Aniconism means two things. First, images of the living world (sic) do not, normally, serve as formal signs or symbols of significance to the faithful. Thus, with occasional exceptions, no Muslim dynasty or state ever used physical representations of divine or secular themes in its official art. Illustrations of holy subjects are rare, with the important exception of Shiite celebrations of the martyrdom of Hussein. The point is of some importance if one recalls its major consequence that the memory of holy history and of worldly history available to Muslims was not through images. Scholars may have learned to identify the physical traits of Shah Abbas, Akbar, or Mehmed the Conqueror and Süleyman the Magnificent, but characteristic mustaches or noses are known either through western paintings as with Ottoman rulers or with miniatures restricted to a very small number of users. They are not, as in China or the West, ways in which authority expresses itself to its own subjects. For an eventual psychological profile of Muslims as they related to the visual arts at whatever moment of their history, it is important to remember this relative absence of set images in collective or individual memories, for it must have affected both the judgements believers made and the expectations they had (and possibly still have now) of works of art. But the ways in which critical faculties and taste were affected need investigations which have not yet been carried out”.
The views expressed in this paragraph in this essay by a Professor whose publications have “left an indelible mark on almost every aspect of the study of Islamic art and architecture”, has had a considerable influence and are worth consideration. “Aniconism means two things. First, images of the living world (sic) do not, normally, serve as formal signs or symbols of significance to the faithful.” Yet it is understood by Muslims that the “living world”, that is, the temporal world, is only relatively alive in comparison to that which is truly Living, al-Hayy, but is to be regarded as containing signs and symbols of significance to the faithful as the Holy Qu’ran reminds, for example colours are themselves to be read as a sign of the Almighty in the temporal world as is recorded in Surat Al-Nahl, 16:13, “On the earth He has fashioned for you objects of various hues”. While the colours themselves are mentioned as given by the Almighty in the Surat Fāţir, 35: 27, “Did you not see how God sent down water from the sky with which We brought forth fruits of different hues? In the mountains there are streaks of various shades of red and white, and jet black rocks. Men, beasts and cattle have their different colours, too”. Further, the living world in its entirety, including its creatures is expressly described as being a sign, Surat Ash-Shūraá, 42:29, “And of his signs is the creation of the heavens and earth and what He has dispersed throughout them of creatures”.
The idea presented in this essay that, “no Muslim dynasty or state ever used physical representations of divine or secular themes in its official art”, seems to be a quite incredible statement. Apart from the fact that in a worldview defined by the religion, the idea of a pre-modern Islamic state employing “secular themes in its official art” is to be blunt, a nonsensical notion; there is quite simply the direct and pervasive presence of the physical representation of the Divine in the official art of Muslim dynasties and states and this has been the case for well over a millennia. The evidence is there to be seen today, as in the past. States defined themselves and rulers gained their legitimacy to rule through association with the religion – Islam, and consequently it is evident, the physical representation of Divine themes, are at the very centre and the source of the art of Islam. The surviving physical representations on the theme of the Divine, directly contradicts the sweeping generalisation made by Oleg Grabar in this statement. The physical and public representation of the Divine in the official art of Muslim dynasties and state, is reiterated in both script, the letters of which serve as an implicit reminder of the Word, and inscription recording the Name Allah; as also in the Islamic titulature employed by Islamic rulers on coinage, seals, tiraz and building inscriptions, recording titles such as, “As-Sultan al-Muazzam Ala al-Dunya wa’d-Din” – The Great Sultan, Eminent of the World and of the Religion, as also in the repeated citations from the Holy Qu’ran on state buildings, including on the walls of congregational mosques and castles constructed for the ruler. The Name of the Almighty carved in relief in a space visible to the public is the physical representation of a divine theme par excellence.
If it is the case, as Oleg Grabar states, that “First, images of the living world (sic) do not, normally, serve as formal signs or symbols of significance to the faithful… no Muslim dynasty or state ever used physical representations of divine themes in its official art”, then how is one to explain the presence of the crescent moon, an image from the temporal world, made not only in two dimensions, in ink and paint, embroidered and woven in textiles, but which also forms the most common and characteristic work of three dimensional Islamic sculpture, an alem, crowning many of the world’s multitude of minarets and domes, minbers, banners and standards? The symbol of the crescent moon serves as a formal sign and symbol of significance to the faithful, directly addressing a Divine theme, at the apex of minaret and dome, as on minbers in mosques, on flags and passport, because it is a physical representation of a divine theme, namely both symbolising and reminding of the Almighty, which is the theme of Islamic art. This is because the numerical equivalents of the Arabic letters forming the word Allah equals 66, and because the numerical equivalents of the Arabic letters forming the word hilal-crescent moon likewise equal 66. Consequently the crescent moon has been employed for centuries as a symbol of the Almighty; as is likewise the case for the lale-tulip, the numerical equivalents of the Arabic letters forming the word lale-tulip also equal 66, and which is another image from the temporal world employed as a symbol of significance to the faithful and directly contradicting the statement that, “images of the living world (sic) do not, normally, serve as formal signs or symbols of significance to the faithful”. Further, suspended from the domed ceiling of the library of Sultan Ahmet III within the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul there is a sculpture in three dimensions of a doubled wav. The reason for this work of Islamic sculpture having this form is that the numerical equivalent of the letter wav is 6, and so one ‘reads’ this sculpture of the double wav as 66, that is an Islamic sculpture in three dimensions suspended in space, both depicting and reminding of the Almighty. These examples show the Divine formed the theme of official Islamic art – that the Almighty was and remains represented in public – through both two and three-dimensional representations, including through calligraphy in various media and sculptures of, and reminding of, the Divine – Islamic sculptures which have occupied for centuries the summit of all of the tallest buildings in many Islamic cities, in this cityscape look up to the sky and see the gilded sculpture of a crescent moon, and, consequently, Oleg Grabar’s statement that no Muslim dynasty or state ever used physical representations of divine or secular themes in its official art”, is not simply misleading, but reads as a denial of a huge body of physical evidence in both two and three dimensions, ancient and modern, across continents, constructed on the orders of the Muslim ruler, from crowning the celestial dome of the Qubbat As-Sakhrah, as of Sultan Ahmet, Eyyub Sultan to the Taj Mahal, the Atika Mosque in Kashi, and the Great Mosque in San’a, all of which carry physical representations of the divine based upon images from the temporal world and which directly contradict this statement. While illustrations within this book include physical representations of the divine based upon images from the temporal world as there is a fine Ottoman 17th c. cast brass incense-burner 29 cms. h., which carries sculptures of 6 six-petal tulips springing out of the sides, to rise above the mouth of the incense bowl, which is dedicated to “The late Ayşe Sultan” Plate 54 (TİEM 26), while the detail of an İznik tile from the second half of the 16th century, Plate 101 (TİEM 3935) also carries representations of tulips; as does the detail of a 16th century multiple mihrab prayer carpet made in Uşak from the Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Plate 118 (TİEM 776); while alem, brass standards sculpted (mould-cast) with the form of the crescent moon are also illustrated Plate 62 (TİEM 265) and Plate 63 (TİEM 263).
Although Oleg Grabar writes, “Illustrations of holy subjects are rare”, it is rather the case that in Islamic art illustrations of and on the subject of the Divine have been and remain so much a part of the man-made environment – from the design of the crescent moon on flags, as on alem, as also carved in relief on fountains, to the tulips painted on Ottoman and modern ceramics and carved in relief on fountains, to, in can be thought, the tulip-like shape of the modern Turkish tea glass – that it seems possible that the number of visible large and small two and three dimensional representations and reminders of the Divine in the public environment within Islamic cities today, exceeds the number of visible large and small two and three dimensional representations of the Divine in the public environment of cities of the other world religions.
In respect to the portraits of rulers Oleg Grabar writes: “Scholars may have learned to identify the physical traits of Shah Abbas, Akbar, or Mehmed the Conqueror and Süleyman the Magnificent, but characteristic mustaches or noses are known either through western paintings as with Ottoman rulers or with miniatures restricted to a very small number of users. They are not, as in China or the West, ways in which authority expresses itself to its own subjects” . One does rather wonder if the naturalistic representation of the accidents of physique, of physiognomy and the naturalistic depiction of the quantity and particular areas of facial hair of a ruler is, in any case, a more accurate, or a more effective, way for ruler-ship/authority to express itself to its own subjects, than the depiction of a ruler through a resounding name and awesome titles and that the “ruler”, on behalf of the Almighty, and at times in history on behalf of the recognised Caliph, ruling on behalf of the Almighty, being depicted as a recognisable pictorial-sculptural type, rather than a particular or peculiar individual? The title-office holder has a face that changes inevitably over the course of time and the centuries, the title-office remains, consequently, physical traits are a matter of irrelevance in the matter of the way authority expresses itself to its own subjects”.
Further, as Oleg Grabar knew, the ruler as such was repeatedly portrayed in Islamic art, from the Omayyad period onwards there are literally thousands of depictions of figures of rulers, in both two and three dimensions, extending from that struck on the coinage of the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) and that depicted in the bath-house at Qusayr Amrah onwards; the depiction of the ruler enthroned, standing or on horseback, in both two and three dimensions is typical in Islamic figural art. There is for example the statue of a standing Omayyad Caliph probably to be identified with Marwan II (744-50) which survives today from Khirbat al-Mafjar, Palestine, and of course the large metal statue understood to represent the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur that stood for more than centuries above the dome of the Caliph’s audience chamber in Bagdad. There are also what can be termed naturalistic portraits, for example struck on lead seals, to physically identify the sender of the document, recording the face of the Seljuk Sultan Ala ad-Din Keykubat I (r. 1220-37) in profile, recording the form of the nose, the shape of eye and cheek and facial hair, including the “characteristic mustache”.
Finally, in addition to the point raised above, that the reminding of, and the representation of the Divine is in fact usual, and which is and remains the focus in Islamic art, concerning these two sentences from this passage in this essay:
“Illustrations of holy subjects are rare, with the important exception of Shiite celebrations of the martyrdom of Hussein. The point is of some importance if one recalls its major consequence that the memory of holy history and of worldly history available to Muslims was not through images”.
It does perhaps however seems reasonable to suggest “that the memory of holy history” available to Muslims was and it remains a living and a lived experience, through following the recorded historical precedent and example provided by the Prophet of Islam, as conveyed through the Word and text, through intentions and actions, as through the intention and actions undertaken on the hajj, re-living to one’s capacity both holy history and worldly history. Further, in numerous senses the hajj and the Qaaba and Mecca as an illustration and memory of holy history and of worldly history are represented repeatedly in Islamic art, not least in the “stepped mihrap” frequently depicted on a prayer rug which represents the steps of Mount Arafat, as likewise the depictions of the haram displayed on the pilgrimage certificates that formerly hung in mosques (illustrated Plate 7, TİEM 4104 (29th January 1189), as also depicted in tile-work (illustrated Plates 103 A-D, TİEM 827, 828, 829, 830 ) and in miniatures, painted on kiblenuma (illustrated Plate 39, TİEM, of 1738-9), as painted on the exterior facades of the homes of returned hajjis, and as images spread from the cell phones of hajjis today. Consequently, not only are holy subjects, for example the places of pilgrimage, illustrated through the centuries, but the Muslim, to the extent that the Prophetic example is followed, as typified at the hajj, is a living image and, is at the same time, an image of both holy history and worldly history.
 at 1.378,03 TL.
 http://www.kitapbooks.com/oleg-grabar-w134153.html at, 1.418,90 TL.
 Cited for example by C. Papa-Kalantari in the Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS (International Association for Tibetan Studies), 2003. Volume 7: Text, Image and Song in Transdisciplinary Dialogue, BRILL, 2006.
 A. Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins, A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Bollingen Series, 35, 10, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 1968. It is perhaps noteworthy that in 1990 Oleg Grabar relates that his father in respect to his 1989 A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, that became, The Mediation of Ornament, “made perceptive comments on approaches and considerations that were not entirely to his liking but that interested and concerned him as unusual directions for the field of history of art, to which he had devoted his long life”. O. Grabar, The Mediation of Ornament. A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1989, Bollingen Series, 35, 38, Princeton University Press, Princeton University Press, 1992, xviiii.
 T. M. P. Duggan, “The O’Grady factor and false resemblance – blinding Oriental-isms and misapprehensions of the 13th century in the absence of due contextualisation and a little common sense”. Akdeniz Üniversitesi, Edebiyat Fakültesi, İngiliz Dili ve Edebiyatı Bölümü, I. Dil, Talat S. Halman Kültür ve Edebiyat Çalıştayı, Haziran 2015, Proceedings forthcoming 2015.
 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art. Dover, New York, (1943) 1956, 110-111.
 T. Majeed, “Review of Islamic Art and Beyond: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art”. Volume III, Journal of Islamic Studies 20/2 (May 2009) 277-80, 278. https://www.academia.edu/4747251/Review_of_Islamic_Art_and_Beyond_Constructing_the_Study_of_Islamic_Art_Volume_III doi:10.1093/jis/etp014
 O. Grabar, “The Aesthetics of Islamic Art”. XIX-XXXVI, N. Ölçer – O. Grabar, In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul. İstanbul, 1993, XXV-XXVI.
 See for example: O. Leaman, Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
 For example it is recorded that one of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s girls, “wore a crescent on the front of her dress with verses inscribed on it”. R. B. Serjeant, Islamic Textiles: Material for a History up to the Mongol Conquest. Beirut: Libraire du Liban, 1972, 203.
 As on the Friday mosque at Kazvin of 1113.
 N. Ölçer – O. Grabar, In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul. İstanbul (1993) 98, 115.
 O. Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987, 44; R. Ettinghausen & O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650-1250. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994, 56-71, Figs. 28, 35-38, 44.
 O. Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987, Fig. 18; T. M. P. Duggan, “Some reasons for the currency reform of A.H. 77/696-7 A.D. – The figure on the obverse – the Caliph, the Prophet, or an image of an idol of solid hammer-beaten metal?”. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities (MJH), Vol. IV/2 (2014) 89-112; 92-93.
 O. Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1987, 44, Fig. 3, “In the central apse the prince for whom the bath had been built is shown enthroned officially”.
 R. Ettinghausen & O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 650-1250. Yale University Press, 1994, 56-71, Figs. 28, 35-38, 44; M. Hattstein & P. Delius, Eds. Islam-Art and Architecture. Cologne: Könemann, 2000, 81-87.
 H. Kennedy, The Court of the Caliphs, the rise and fall of Islam’s greatest Dynasty. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004, 136, citing Ibn abi-Usaybi’ah, Vol. II, 155, 163; P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs. London: Macmillan, 1991, 419.
 T. M. P. Duggan, “A 13th century profile portrait seal depicting the face of the Rum Seljuk Sultan Alaed-Din Keykubat I (1220-37) from Antalya Province – precedents and possible influence”. ADALYA X (2007) 309-349.
 Ş. Aksoy & R. Milstein, “A Collection of Thirteenth century illustrated Hajj certificates”. In: M. Uğur Derman 65th Birthday Festchrift. Ed. Cemil Schick. İstanbul: Sabancı University (2000) 101-134.
 For examples see, A. Parker & Avon Neal, Hajj Paintings: Folk Art Of The Great Pilgrimage. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1995.
Akdeniz Uygarlıkları Araştırma Enstitüsü
Terrance Mikail Patrick DUGGAN
N. ÖLÇER – O. GRABAR, In Pursuit of Excellence: Works of Art from The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts İstanbul. İstanbul 1993. Ertuğ & Kocabıyık Pub., 260 pages (large-format colour images, 26 by 36.5 cms.) Photographs by A. ERTUĞ. Limited Edition. Hardbound in slipcase. Tanıtan: Terrance Mikail Patrick DUGGAN, Libri I (2015) 37-44.
Permanent Link: http://www.libridergi.org/2015/lbr-0010