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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

COURT AND CRAFT: A MASTERPIECE FROM NORTHERN IRAQ. Until 18 May 2014. The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, WC2R. Free / £6 (see below)

Bag, Mosul, northern Iraq, 1300-1330
Brass, inlaid with gold and silver
Height: 15.2 cm; width: 22 cm; depth: 13.5 cm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

It is in a tiny room that the Courtauld Gallery is showing off an exhibition of non-Western art. Precious pieces from the Islamic world shown in the gallery for the very first time. The object of desire triggering the attention otherwise known as the centre piece of the exhibition is a 700 years old luxury metalwork bag.
A bag, or a handbag, a shoulder bag made in the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. This early XIV century brass container inlaid with intricate scenes of courtly life in gold and silver was acquired by The Courtauld in 1966. Not knowing the origins and its purpose, the “wallet” sat there in the collection.

Bottle, Mamluk Egypt or Syria, c. 1330
Glass, blown, enamelled and gilded
Height: 27.5 cm; diameter: 17.5 cm
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The mysterious “wallet” eventually got un-clued and the exhibition considers this luxury craft tradition before and after the Mongol invasion showing off a collection of 40 related objects from the British Museum, V&A, British Library and pieces from private collection in Copenhagen, Berlin, Tbilisi, Florence, Baltimore and The Nasser D.Khalili Collection of Islamic Art.

The bag survived the brutal Mongol conquest in 1262 and belonged to high-ranking woman at the court of the II-Khanids, the dynasty established in the region by the grandson of Chinggis Khan. I am told that at the time, women had a lot of power.

It is decorated with a courtly scene showing an enthroned couple as well as musicians, hunters and revellers: one of the finest pieces of Islamic metalwork in existence. Court and Craft explores the origin and cultural context of this extraordinary object, alongside displays of illustrated manuscripts, ceramics and other luxury crafts: Tray, fine decorated glasses, ewer, basin, candlesticks, and incense burner. At the time, incense was an expensive luxury and great care was taken on its containers.

Bag: detail of lid showing court scene with a couple and their retinue

The bag court scene is reproduced on a larger drawing further in the room describing in details the scene with the original objects below the drawing from diverse collections in London and in the world.
At the centre, a richly dressed couple surrounded by attendants in Mongol costume who serve them food and drink, carrying paraphernalia of a princely life: parasol, falcon, lute. Beside the woman, her page is standing holding a mirror and carrying the bag. It seems that at the time, alcohol was highly consumed. The objects of the scene include a pair of crescent-shaped gold earrings, a Chinese mirror, a Syrian glass bottle (my favourite piece) and so on.

The exhibition also include manuscripts, a copy of the Qur’an made for the ruler Oljeitu and objects surrounding the trading cultures from the XIII century when its Mongol wave of invasion across Asia (Marco Polo happened to be travelling from the Mediterranean to China).

Once upon a time, Mosul was a city where Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Christians, Jews and Muslims cross each other’s path.

Trailer – a guide with curator Rachel Ward =

Until 18 May 2014.
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R ORN
Opening hours = 10 am to 6pm - daily
Admission =
Free at all times for under 18s, full-time UK students and unwaged
50% discount with National Art Pass
Adult: £6, concession £5 – Mondays (including public holidays); £3

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