Middle East studies in the News
Royal Symbols Play Important Role in Islamic Art, Culture [on Michael Barry]
by Rahfin Faruk
Dr. Michael Barry, a lecturer in Near Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton University discussed the importance of royal symbols during the Islamic Art and Culture and Culture Forum on Wednesday.
Barry spoke about the symbols of several imperial powers across multiple time periods, including the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Meghal realm in India, at the Perkins School of Theology. The Aga Khan Council for Northern Texas, the Perkins School of Theology and the Meadows School of the Arts sponsored the forum.
Islamic symbols developed as a result of contact with other civilizations, many of which are said to come from the ancient Persian Empire.
"The use of guardian lions around the king and a halo above the king's head reflects the importance of the king," Barry said.
A halo showed that God had bestowed a Muslim king with success. The halo was used by Roman and Byzantine artists to reflect the ultimate, divine power of the king.
"The halo transcends religious boundaries," Barry said. "But, perhaps more than anything, the greatest symbol of Islamic art is the handkerchief."
The handkerchief was first used in Roman works where a Roman emperor would clutch a handkerchief as a symbol of imperial power. Only a handkerchief in the hand of an emperor could initiate the famous Coliseum battles of Rome.
"This is detail that can be seen throughout the 14th and 15th century," Barry said. "It is a miniscule little detail that has been transmitted from the Persians to the Romans to the Mughals and many civilizations in between."
Royal painters used symbols as a method in which to project the power of the kings they served. Throughout the development of Islamic civilization, a noticeable archetype developed.
"A cup in the hand of a sultan reflects the purity of the heart," Barry said. "It proves that the king is worthy to be presented as a just ruler. The symbolic wine in the cup reflects the divine light of God on the earth."
Islamic archetypes embodied larger themes that were borrowed from Christian scripture. The portraits of Gazhal Khan, a Mongol emperor, capture this sentiment.
"He wanted to be depicted as King Solomon, the famous Christian ruler. This depiction was a warning to all Islamic rulers that they should not stray from the path of God like Solomon," Barry said.
The halo on top of traditional Christian rulers often included an allusion to the Star of David. In the case of Islamic rulers, the Seal of Solomon was a symbol of righteousness.
Audience members were surprised that Islamic art shares many of the same principles of Christian art.
"It is great to see that our religions have more in common than people realize," Muhammad Yunus, a community member, said.
Barry said that the greatest image of religious transcendence is that of Adam as the greatest visible mirror of the divine.
"Islamic artists often used Adam as a symbol of the divine," Barry said. As the Quran states, God creates Adam as the original caliph and calls upon angels to bow down to him."
Similar to Christian works that glorify Jesus Christ, Islamic works often use allusions to Adam as the original caliph.
Jasmine Hoque, a community member active in interfaith dialogue believes art can tell a story.
"The impact of art on contemporary issues of diversity and tolerance should not be overlooked," she said.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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