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.
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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).
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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, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 81, pp. 12-13, 15, 16, 89, 124-126, ill. p. 125 (color), figs. 19, 20 (b/w).
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. 132-133, ill. p. 132 (color).