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Islamic Treasures for Western Europe: From Medieval Cloisters to Victorian Collectors

(In-Person Only)

Rare works of art which have survived in cathedral treasuries or western museum collections attest to an enduring admiration for the wondrous craft traditions of the Islamic world. Renaissance paintings by artists including Hans Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto and Hans Memling and spectacular Jacobean portraits by William Larkin and John de Critz show richly coloured and intricately patterned carpets woven by Ottoman artisans but displayed in lavish and realistic detail in elegant English interiors. Victorian collectors such as Frederic, Lord Leighton and William Morris shared a passion for the beauty of Islamic arts and crafts, Leighton famously conjuring the spirit of the East in his Holland Park residence's Arab Hall. This three-lecture study day will focus on centuries-old traditions of luxury hand-craftsmanship, the exchange of rare treasures through diplomatic gifts and the trade in sought-after works of art between port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe. We will look at glass from Syria, crystal from Cairo, woven silks and lustred pottery from Al-Andalus, Ottoman ceramics, Persian carpets, Mughal jades and much more.

The 'Luck of Edenhall', probably Syria or Egypt, 14th Century, V&A Museum.JPG
Fatimid Rock Crystal Ewer 11th to 12th Century, given by Roger II of Sicily to Theobald, C
Mosaic of King Roger II receiving the crown from Christ, the Martorana, Palermo, needs Ann

Lecture 1: In this first lecture, we will consider different craft traditions such as fine rock crystal from Islamic Cairo, silks from Central Asia, Iran and Islamic Spain, ivories from the court of Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Hispano-Moresque ceramics, glass and metalwork from Egypt, Syria and Iran. Merchants travelling on Medieval trade routes from bazaars to port cities sourced these rare treasures. Other works of art arrived in Europe as gifts. Some were repurposed from their original use and were treasured as prized luxuries in church treasuries or in palaces.

Mamluk glass Mosque Lamp, 14th Century, in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.JPG
The Ardabil Carpet, 1539-40, Iran, in the V&A Museum.JPG

Lecture 2: Late Medieval and Renaissance paintings show the high value placed on ceramics and on magnificent silk cloths and woven carpets made in far-distant Islamic lands but used to colourful effect in prestigious European room interiors. Such paintings range from sacred images of the Madonna and child to fine portraiture by artists including the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto, the Jacobean portrait painter William Larkin and the famous double portrait 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein. 

Lecture 3: Victorian collectors such as William Morris, the artist Frederic Lord Leighton, Sir Richard Wallace and the lesser-known George Salting shared a passion for collecting Islamic works of art, placing a high regard on their detailed and skilled craftsmanship and history. Treasures, including the magnificent 'Ardabil Carpet' in the V&A, were sourced from dealers such as Vincent Robinson in London's Wigmore Street. In this lecture, we will look again at mosque lamps, ivories and silks from Al-Andalus, Mughal jewels and textiles, carpets and ceramics from Nasrid Spain, which were collected in 19th Century England.

William Larkin Portrait of Richard Sackville 3rd Earl of Dorset, 1613, English Heritage, K
Garden in the Alhambra Palace, Granada needs watermark copyright.JPG
Ceiling and wall decoration in the Alhambra Palace, needs watermark for Anne copyright.JPG

Text © Anne Haworth

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