Genghis Khan's amazing art legacy revealed

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 15, 2003 at 12:38 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- A comprehensive exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum reveals that for one shining century after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century united eastern and western Asia, the Islamic art of Iran attained its highest level of achievement as the result of foreign influences at the courts of Genghis Khan's sons and grandsons.

More than 200 objects of surpassing beauty have been gathered from collections around the world for "The Legacy of Genghis Khan," organized by the Metropolitan and the Los Angeles County Art Museum where it will be displayed after it closes at the Met Feb. 16. It is billed as the first exhibition ever to assess the art of the Iranian world that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific under the Ilkhanid dynasty from 1256 to1535.

The dynasty was established by Hyulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan who had close ties to China's Yuan dynasty, founded by another of Genghis Khan's grandsons, Khublai Khan. The finest examples extant of textiles, tiles and other ceramics, jewelry, metalwork and wood and stone carving, as well as the art of illuminated manuscript books, are included. Rarest of all is a reconstruction of a Mongol royal tent.

The tent is lined with original panels of elaborately woven silk combined with gold thread dating from the early 14th century, on loan from a Copenhagen collection. It combines rooster motifs dating back to early Islamic art and Kufic inscriptions as well as Chinese dragons and stylized chrysanthemums, thus illustrating the hybrid artistic language that unified all of Asia during the Mongol period.

"Works such as this are of enormous art historical importance," commented Philippe de Montebello, Metropolitan Museum director. "They reflect the convergence of two of the world's major cultures, when West Asian artists and artisans were introduced to previously unknown artistic traditions from East Asia and attempted to respond to the tastes of their new royal patrons, the Mongol rulers."

Although Genghis Khan (1162-1227) is associated with horrific tales of conquest and destruction, his successors created the largest empire ever known to exist and managed to live in relative peace. They developed an elaborate court life, sometimes in palaces, sometimes in nomadic caravans, and patronized artists and craftsman who could fulfill their tastes for luxurious living.

Many scenes of court life are illustrated in another of the show's rare exhibits, 21 of the 57 surviving pages of the early 14th century Great Mongol Shahnama (Book of Kings). The book was broken up nearly 100 years ago by a Paris dealer and the pages are now dispersed among many collections. It is the best known work of Mongol art and the pages explode with movement and color, quite unlike the reserved tone of the later Mughal art in India.

Mughal art, though Islamic, does not enter into this show except for some examples in the Diez Albums of Islamic art put together by an 18th century Prussian diplomat, also on display. The emphasis is on the art of Greater Iran's Ilkhanate state, the so-called Golden Horde in Southern Russia, the Chaghaday Khanate of Central Asia, and the Yuan empire in China, the four areas united under the Pax Mongolica (Mongolian Peace)."

Passports were needed to travel from on khanate to another. They took the form of inscribed gold and silver medallions, called paizas, issued to envoys and other travelers, several of which are on view. It is known that Marco Polo used a gold one to cross imperial borders under the protection of Khublai Khan. The paizas have rings at the top so they could be attached to a belt or a cord worn around the neck.

Unfortunately there are no models of Mongol palaces but there are many examples of the fine tile work that adorned both exterior and interior walls of royal abodes, which were constructed of mundane brick. These often took the form of crosses and stars, glistening with metallic glazes. When fitted together they made repeating patterns, not unlike modern wallpaper, that are pleasingly rhythmic to the eye.

There are plenteous examples of splendid metalwork, none finer than a fanciful gold-sheathed saddle displayed in the tent room that looks at a distance somewhat like a model for a Frank Gehry architectural design. The saddle was a nomadic necessity transformed into a glittering object by the Chinese custom of covering saddles with golden plates.

Among the fine textiles is a woven roundel that best illustrates the hybrid aspect of Mongol art. The composition is Islamic and depicts a prince dressed like a Mongol seated on a throne surrounded by a landscape with birds, animals and vegetation lifted from Chinese and Central Asian silk tapestries. It is of Ilkhanid origin, possibly from Iraq, which was conquered by the Mongols on their way to Iran.

The show takes on added interest at a time when headlines deal mostly with news coming out of countries that were once part of the Mongol empire. An increasing number of museums are mounting exhibits of Islamic art, perhaps the least known, collected, or understood art in America. This is the most important exhibit so far, and should not be missed by anyone who can visit it in New York or Los Angeles.

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