Autumn 2010: Of Note

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Beautiful Words

Carlos hosts first Islamic calligraphy exhibitions in the Southeast

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

Learn proficiency in writing, O man of good breeding! For what is writing if not an embellishment of the well-bred? If you are rich, your writing will be an adornment; if you are poor, it is the best way to earn a living.—Ali B. Abi Talib (d. 661)

In an age when even writing a check is considered quaint, the art of penmanship is rapidly fading from the day-to-day consciousness of many a typical typing, texting, Tweeting consumer.

But the ancient beauty of writing by hand is powerfully showcased in two exhibitions at the Michael C. Carlos Museum highlighting Islamic calligraphy. The most revered art form of the Islamic tradition, the practice of calligraphy—which means “beautiful writing”—is steeped in both artistic quality and spiritual meaning.

“Calligraphy has a central role in Islamic religion and aesthetics,” said Gordon Newby, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian studies, as he led visitors through the exhibition at its August debut.

The objects and writings displayed in the galleries span several centuries and cross two continents. Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 examines the tools used to create works of calligraphy from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, featuring objects from Iran, Turkey, and India. The intricate reed pens, penknives, inkwells, shears, storage boxes, and writing tables are finely crafted works of art in themselves. “These are tools that are meant to be both practical and beautiful,” Newby explained. “They were often made with very precious things”—such as jade, agate, ivory, ebony, silver, and gold.

Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an presents some twenty folios of Qur’ans from Spain and North Africa to greater Iran, dating as far back as the seventh century. Several of the passages are rendered in a design that is both text and picture, so that the message is not immediately apparent but “must be discovered, opening up like a flower in the viewer’s understanding,” Newby said. Muslims are technically required to memorize the Qur’an and most have examples of such calligraphy on their walls.

“For Muslims, the writing of God’s words, the Qur’an, is an act of worship in which devotion and beauty join in praise of God,” Newby says. “In many biographies of Muslims, the number of Qur’an copies they made or had made are listed among their life’s accomplishments.”

The Islamic calligraphy exhibitions are on view through December 5.

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