The Legacy of Genghis Khan
Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353
November 5, 2002–February 16, 2003
Accompanied by a catalogue
The period of Ilkhanid rule—a semi-independent branch of the Mongols—in Iran from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century caused a transformation of the locally established artistic language through contact with Far Eastern art of the Yuan dynasty. The era witnessed a number of remarkable achievements within the sphere of art and culture, and the convergence of the distant cultures of East and West Asia yielded a bold new visual aesthetic that would resonate in Islamic art for centuries to come. This exhibition displays more than two hundred outstanding examples of illustrated manuscripts, the decorative arts, and architectural decoration created during a pivotal historical period.
In a lifetime characterized by war and conquest, Genghis Khan (1167?–1227) forged the largest contiguous land empire in human history. His legacy was a unified Mongol confederacy that his sons and grandsons ruled for more than a century. During this peaceful era, people, objects, and ideas moved with unprecedented freedom over a vast territory that reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. The confluence of previously distant cultures yielded a bold new visual aesthetic that would resonate in Islamic art for centuries to come.
The exhibition is arranged thematically and includes works in all media, with special emphasis on illustrated manuscripts and ceramics.
At the time of the Mongol conquest, the art of the illuminated and illustrated book already was highly developed in Iran after five centuries of Islamic rule. Under the Ilkhanids, manuscript illustration and calligraphy attained new heights, as numerous examples in the exhibition show. Of particular note are two royal Ilkhanid manuscripts—the Jami' al-tavarikh (the first-ever "History of the World," two volumes of which have survived) and the Great Mongol Shahnama (Book of Kings). The choice of specific episodes of the Shahnama for illustration and the recasting of Iranian heroes in the guise and costume of Mongol rulers indicate that these works served the political purpose of legitimizing the ruling elite. Large sections of both manuscripts are being reunited specifically for this exhibition.
Several architectural elements are also on view, including ceramic tiles from the archaeological site of Takht-i Sulayman (Iran)—the only surviving ruined palace of the Ilkhanid period. Shown along with computer-generated photographic-reproduction tiles and courtly furnishings, the tiles suggest the visual richness of the palaces of the time.
Luxury textiles were highly favored by the Mongols and—because of their portability—played a crucial role in the transmission of artistic ideas from East to West. The exhibition includes fragments of elaborately woven silks bearing eastern Asian designs that entered the visual vocabulary of western Asia through trade during the Mongol period.