The most important element in any mosque is the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca, the Muslim holy pilgrimage site in Arabia, which Muslims face when praying. This example from the Madrasa Imami in Isfahan is composed of a mosaic of small glazed tiles fitted together to form various patterns and inscriptions. Qur'anic verses run from the bottom right to the bottom left of the outer frame; a second inscription with sayings of the Prophet, in Kufic script, borders the pointed arch of the niche; and a third inscription, in cursive, is set in a frame at the center of the niche. The result is one of the earliest and finest surviving examples of mosaic tile work.
Along the frame, a reference to the five pillars of Islam is written in kufic: "He [the Prophet], blessings and peace be upon him, said: “Islam is built on five attestations: there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God, he established prayer and the giving of alms and the pilgrimage and fasting of [the month of] Ramadan."
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Title:Mihrab (Prayer Niche)
Date:dated A.H. 755/1354–55 CE
Geography:From Iran, Isfahan
Medium:Mosaic of polychrome-glazed cut tiles on stonepaste body; set into mortar
Dimensions:Mihrab H. 135 1/16 in. (343.1 cm) W. 113 11/16in. (288.7cm) Wt. 4,500 lbs. (2041.2 kg) Storage box: W. 99 in. (251.5 cm) D. 41 1/2 in. (105.4 cm)
Credit Line:Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1939
Mihrab (Prayer Niche)
This prayer niche, or mihrab, was originally an architectural element in a theological school (madrasa) in the city of Isfahan. An inscription in the courtyard of this former school, now known as Madrasa Imami, is dated to the year A.H. 754/1354–55 A.D. The madrasa was built shortly after the collapse of the Ilkhanid dynasty, when rival Injuids and Muzaffarid leaders competed for control over Isfahan. The qibla wall, which is now whitewashed, was originally graced with this monumental and impressive mihrab. It was produced by joining together a myriad of cut-to-size glazed tiles to produce the intricate arabesque and calligraphic designs.
Created predominantly with tiles of contrasting dark blue and milky white glazes, the mihrab has additional turquoise, ocher-yellow, and dark green colors that enrich the complex geometric, vegetal, and calligraphic patterns. The decorative achievement, combined with the challenge of creating a three-dimensional work that includes a deep, rounded niche with pointed vault, makes this one of the earliest and finest examples of mosaic tilework to survive. Inscriptional bands reflect the careful planning of the decorative program: the outer frame bears a Qur’anic inscription in white muhaqqaq script, in which words and letters progress in two superimposed lines from the bottom right to the bottom left (Qur’an 9:18–22), while an inscription in kufic script containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) frames the pointed arch of the niche and is set in blue against a white background, rhythmically punctuated by continuous vertical letter endings. The most legible words are inside the rectangular cartouche at the center of the niche: ocher-yellow inscriptions in kufic script mentioning the prophet are followed by a clear, larger, cursive white reference to the function of the mosque.
This prayer nich underwent a series of restorations and relocations before it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum. The mihrab was removed from the Madrasa Imami in the late 1920s, after skillful local potters had provided extensive (and almost undetectable) restoration in the area below the central inscription. Shipped to Philadelphia and stored in the University Museum there, it also spent some time in London, where it was shown at a legendary exhibition of Persian art at Burlington House in 1931. The Metropolitan eventually purchased it in 1939.
Now displayed as a splendid example of religious architectural decoration of Iranian Islamic art, the mihrab of the Madrasa Imami is one of the most significant and noteworthy works in the Museum’s collection.
Stefano Carboni in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
2. For a summary of the mihrab’s history, see Carboni and Masuya 1993, p. 36, no. 31.
Mosaic tile mihrab
This monumental mihrab is one of the earliest and finest examples of the complex and time-consuming technique of mosaic tilework, which started in the Ilkhanid period at the beginning of the fourteenth century at Sham, Tabriz, and Sultaniyya. The date of the madrasa Imamï this mihrab came from indicates that it was produced during the period when the Injuid Abu Ishäq took refuge in Isfahan before he was captured by the Muzaffarid Mubâriz al-Dïn Muhammad in A.H. 757–758/A.D. 1356–57. The polychrome composition is made of tiny pieces of monochrome-glaze tiles cut to shape and size from larger tiles in order to fit into the pattern of the mihrab. The curvature of the central niche adds to the technical difficulties. The complex pattern was probably planned with the help of colored cartoons. The colored glazes used in this mihrab are turquoise, cobalt blue, milky white, ocher yellow often shading into brown, and dark green. Around the mihrab there is an inscriptional frieze in muhaqqaq script running from the bottom right to the bottom left, containing Qur'an 9:18-22; a second inscription in Kufic script with sayings of the Prophet borders the pointed arch of the niche; a third inscription is set in a frame at the center of the niche and reads: "The Prophet said, peace upon Him: 'The mosque is the dwelling place of the pious.'" The vegetal decoration above the niche contrasts with the two different geometrical patterns seen inside the niche itself. The overall chromatic effect, based mainly on the contrast turquoise-white-cobalt blue but enhanced by the yellow and green colors, is extremely rich. In its present condition, the mihrab is extensively restored. A photograph taken probably in the mid-1920s for the American Institute of Iranian Art and Archaeology shows the mihrab still in situ in the madrasa Imami in Isfahan. The bottom part of the niche, just below the central inscription, and a substantial part at the beginning and at the end of the main inscription are missing. This part was restored by very skillful potters in Isfahan; they worked so well that it is now difficult to distinguish the modern replacement from the original. In the late 1920s the mihrab was removed and shipped to Philadelphia, where it was stored in the University Museum until The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it in 1939. In addition, it was also sent to London for an exhibition held at Burlington House in 1931. A photograph published in 1931 shows that the mihrab had partially collapsed: most of the vault of the niche and large sections of the upper part are missing in the photograph. This means that between 1931 and 1939 the mihrab was once again extensively restored, this time probably by making use of the original mosaic pieces that had fallen off during the voyage from Iran. In spite of its troubled history of restoration, this mihrab nevertheless remains one of the best examples of the mosaic tile technique in fourteenth-century Persia.
[Carboni and Masuya 1993]
Inscription: Large inscription in Arabic in muhaqqaq script on outer border: Qur’an 9:18–22.
Inscription in Arabic in kufic script framing the niche:
قال علیه الصلوة والسلام بنى الاسلام علی خمس شهادة ان لا إله إلا الله وأن محمداً رسول الله
واقام الصلوة وإیتاء الزکوة و الحج و صوم رمضان وقال علیه الصلوة و السلام من بنی لله
مسجداً ولو بمفحص قطاة علی التقوی
He [the Prophet], blessings and peace be upon him, said: “Islam is built on five attestations: there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,
he established prayer and the giving of alms and the pilgrimage and fasting of
[the month of] Ramadan.” And he [the Prophet], blessings and peace be upon
him, said: “Whoever builds a mosque for God, even the size of a sand-grouse
nest, based on piety, [God will build for him a palace in Paradise].” (The Muslim reader can complete the phrase with the latter part of the sentence).
Inscription in Arabic in kufic and thuluth scripts at center of niche:
قال النبي علیه الصلوة والسلام/ المسجد بیت کل تقي
The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said:
“The mosque is the abode of the pious.”
English translations of the Qur’an are taken from Arthur J. Arberry’s "The Koran Interpreted" (New York, 1966).
Madrasa Imami, Isfahan, Iran (1354–late 1920s); [ A. Rabenou, Paris, by 1931–39; sold to Arthur U. Pope for MMA]
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 57.
New York. Hagop Kevorkian Fund Special Exhibitions Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Persian Tiles," May 4, 1993–January 2, 1994, no. 31.
Wilson, Arnold T. Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd. ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. 57.
"7th January to 28th February, 1931." In Persian Art : An Illustrated Souvenir of the Exhibition of Persian Art at Burlington House London, 1931. 2nd ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. 57, p. 52, ill. (b/w).
Harari, Ralph, and Richard Ettinghausen. A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, edited by Arthur Upham Pope. vol. I–VI. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. ill. vol. VI, pl. 402.
Erdmann, Kurt, George C. Miles, Jean Sauvaget, Amy Briggs, Maurice S. Dimand, Mary E. Crane, Richard Ettinghausen, Wolfgang Born, and Myron B. Smith. "A Fourteenth Century Mihrab from Isfahan." Ars Islamica vol. VII (1940). pp. 96–100, ill. (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 204, ill. fig. 134 (b/w).
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 1975). ill. p. 20 (color).
Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn, Suzanne G. Valenstein, and Julia Meech-Pekarik. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections. vol. 12. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1977. no. 91, p. 314, ill. (color).
Jenkins-Madina, Marilyn. "Islamic Pottery: A Brief History." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 40, no. 4 (Spring 1983). no. 36, pp. 32–33, ill. (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 48–49, ill. fig. 34 (color).
Soucek, Priscilla, ed. Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World : papers from a colloquium in memory of Richard Ettinghausen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Monographs on the fine arts, vol. 44. University Park, PA: College Art Association of America, 1988. pp. 53, 62, ill. fig. 3 (b/w).
de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 321, ill. fig. 24 (color).
Schimmel, Annemarie. "Islamic Calligraphy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 50, no. 1 (Summer 1992). pp. 30–31, ill. fig. 38 (color).
Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. pp. 76–77, ill. p. 76 (color).
Carboni, Stefano, and Tomoko Masuya. Persian Tiles. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. no. 31, p. 36, ill. (b/w).
Carboni, Stefano. "Chessmen in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Scacchi e Scienze Applicate suppl. no. 7, fasc. 15 (1996). ill. back cover (b/w).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 81, pp. 12–13, 15, 16, 89, 124–26, ill. p. 125 (color), figs. 19, 20 (b/w).
Khan, Hasan Uddin, ed. The Religious Architecture of Islam. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2021. p. 229, fig. 4
Canby, Sheila R. "The Islamic Galleries at The Met." Arts of Asia, Arts of Asia, vol. 42 (September/October 2012). pp. 86, 88, ill. fig. 10 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 46–47, ill. pl. 4 (color).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 132–33, ill. (color).
Courtney Stewart, senior research assistant in the Department of Islamic Art, takes a closer look at the medallions in the 16th–17th century Persian rugs currently on display in the exhibition Carpets for Kings: Six Masterpieces of Iranian Weaving.
Students will be able to identify visual qualities of several calligraphic scripts; recognize ways artists from the Islamic world engage various scripts to enhance works of art supporting a range of functions; and assess the merits of several computer-generated fonts in supporting specific uses.
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