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Bringing the Met Into the 1300s

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art embarked on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. Over the course of two months a reporter and photographer from New York Times were invited to watch as the space began to transform slowly from a 21-by-23-foot drywall box — illuminated by an LED panel in the ceiling cleverly mimicking daylight — to a courtyard with tile patterns based on those in the Alhambra palace in Granada, above which rise walls of fantastically filigreed plaster, leading to a carved cedar molding based on the renowned woodwork in the 14th-century Attarin madrasa, or Islamic school, in Fez. Following are a series of photographs (by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times) depicting how the Met was brought back into the 1300s.

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Mohammed Naji and other Moroccan craftsmen are creating a brand new 14th-century courtyard at the heart of the Islamic art galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Randy Kennedy writes: "With world attention focused on the Middle East, the courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself, which has followed the project closely; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met." Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

"They hope it will function not only as a placid chronological way station for people moving through more than a millennium of Islamic history, but also as a symbol, amid potent anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and Europe, that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West." Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

"After months of debate about whether it could pull off such a feat in a way that would meet the Met’s standards, it essentially decided to order a courtyard up. "Which is how a group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, many of whom had never set foot in New York, came essentially to take up residence at the Met beginning last December, working some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco), to build a 14th-century Islamic fantasia in seclusion high above the Greek and Roman galleries as unknowing museum goers passed below." Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Bags of clay tiles awaiting placement. Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

 Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Tens of thousands of pieces of clay tile, many not much bigger than grains of rice, are fitted together face down in a big rectangle. The tiles had been shipped from Fez, where large pieces had been fired in ovens fueled with olive pits and sawdust and then hand cut into individual shapes by 35 workers over a period of four months. Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Ahmed el Mghari, working with tweezers, fits together the tiles of a wall panel. This kind of painstaking mosaic work is known as zellij. Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

One of the projet's ornate panels. "The Moroccans, who are known for their restoration work on important mosques and other landmarks in the Middle East, are in essence living historians who have carried on patterns and designs preserved in practice for generations. But they have never attempted a job requiring this level of historical attention or artistry, one whose goal is to look as authentic to Moroccan eyes as to those of scholars."

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