I visited the Met’s exhibition Court and Cosmos in a very particular way. This month’s museum theme is TECHNOLOGY, and I wanted to give myself the constraint of visiting an exhibition with this lens. Court and Cosmos turned out to be an apt choice of exhibition, with technology evident in both the objects and their display.
Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs
Have you ever heard of the Seljuqs? I definitely hadn’t, although they were the most important dynasty before the Mongols. The Seljuqs were nomads from Central Asia who conquered Iran in the 11th century CE. After adapting Islam and many aspects of Persian culture, they went on to conquer much of present-day Turkmenistan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
The Seljuqs created a unique culture, which merged aspects of diverse traditions. Their rule (1038-1307) corresponded with economic prosperity, advances in science and technology, and artistic innovations.
Technology in the Exhibition
A major technological advancement under the Seljuqs was the emergence of stonepaste, a new ceramic medium that replaced earthenware. Stonepaste is a mix of finely ground quartz mixed, small amounts of liquefied glass, and refined clay. It enabled a greater sophistication in decoration and shapes.
My favorite stonepaste object in the exhibition was a bowl decorated with dragons from Iran in 1210 CE. The snakelike dragons appear around the bowl, confronting each other. Dragons were associated with al-Jawzahr, a pseudo-planet, able to cause and reverse eclipses by swallowing the moon and sun. They were thought to be terrifying and beneficial/protective.
Technology of the Exhibition
Digital projections abound in the exhibition. Take for example the display of the Blacas Ewer from Iraq in 1232 CE. This magnificent vessel is covered with lavish inlaid decoration: you really need to put your nose in it to discover the intricate details full of gesture and expression. On the wall across from the ewer’s vitrine is a digital project of these details. It is amazing how well the tiny scenes translate to this oversized presentation.
In the largest gallery of the exhibition, a series of door-shaped digital projections show rotating Seljuq sites and monuments. So as visitors explore the objects of the exhibition, they can look out “through” these portals and imagine the original context.
Towards the end of the exhibition, a whole room is dedicated to a ceiling projection of brickwork domes from the Masjid-i Jami in Isfahan, Iran. It is completed with a padded bench that allows for looking up comfortably. I found it to be a clever and effective way to visit architectural elements that are probably not the easiest to move around.
Court and Cosmos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until July 24, 2016)
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