god is in the details

The rise of Islam in Arabia and its subsequent spread had a profound and unifying effect on the art and culture of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran and Central and South Asia. Underpinned by a shared Islamic heritage, each region nevertheless continued to strongly express its artistic individuality. This cultural diversity is made clear – as well as being beautifully displayed – in the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s newly refurbished Islamic galleries. Hidden from view since 2003, many of the works on display were created for dynastic rulers and nobles by workshops in the service of the court. This world is revealed in illustrated literary, poetic, and heroic texts, like the epic Persian Book of Kings or in royal portraits and precious objects for the Ottoman Sultans. Patterns of patronage extended into the worlds of trade, commerce and village life, too; expressed in carpets, ceramics, and quotidian objects rendered as items of exquisite beauty, like the mihrab or prayer niche seen above. Yet the quintessential form of artistic expression in the Islamic world was calligraphy as derived from the holy book, the Qur’an. Lavishly copied in many beautiful scripts, its sacred verses adorned architecture and art everywhere, woven into complex geometric designs, along with floral and vegetable motifs in a variety of scrolling patterns. It has been said that God is in the details. For the artists who toiled anonymously in the service of Islam, that truism was more than just hyperbole; it was the highest form of expression.



on the steps of the palace

The only surviving Portuguese palace which can be traced to the Middle Ages, the National Palace of Sintra is smack in the heart of the historic town. It’s two distinctively over-sized funnel chimneys distinguish an otherwise unprepossessing exterior.  (At first glance I mistook the building for another, wondering why a handful of tourists were lined up in front of the local power plant.) It’s provenance can be traced to the time of Islamic domination thanks to a historical reference by an Arab geographer in the 10th century. Unlike the Moorish castle up the hill which was used for defensive purposes – not Pena Palace but another one called Castle of the Moors; Sintra, didn’t I tell you?, is coming down with palace castles – the National Palace was built as the official residence for the governors of Lisbon, hence it’s demure exterior. When Lisbon was reconquered in 1147, Sintra surrendered and the Palace became the property and residence of the Kings of Portugal, who built and rebuilt for 800 years, adding towers and extensions up until the monarchy was dumped in the early 20th century. It’s a hodgepodge, to be sure; but a beautiful one, with jewel box interiors that belie its simple facade. The painted vaults of the Swan’s Room are a perfect example of the Portuguese baroque, or Manueline, style.  Off the central patio is the theatrical Bath Grotto, a sort of cold room that was later decorated with tile panels and rocaille stucco that holds an ingenious system of water spouts hidden in the grouting seams. The Coast of Arms room is one of the most important heraldic rooms in Europe:  the peak of the eight-sided vault is a clear allegory of King Manuel’s power, showing the Portuguese coat of arms surmounted by a winged dragon and flanked by the arms of seventy-two families of Portuguese nobility.  Tradition has it that fleets setting out or returning from Africa, Brazil or India could be seen from this room, which has a westerly view over the Atlantic. On the lower level is the 13th century Palace Chapel, one of the first additions made by the returning Kings. The ceiling is a magnificent combination of tile paving and frescoes.  As was customary in attempting to avoid the risk of fire, the kitchen was at a safe remove from the other rooms.  Some six hundred years later those funnel chimneys are still up to code, moreover, and the kitchen continues to be used for official banquets.


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