Why visit the Aga Khan Museum and learn about Islamic art?

Today, Toronto has the first and only museum of Islamic art in North America. This excellent collection art from around the globe of over 1,000 years of Islamic culture belongs to the Aga Khan, who is the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis. This is a hereditary title currently held by Karim al-Hussain Shah. The museum and surrounding gardens are breathtaking spaces that reflect the Aga Khan’s interest in the arts. It is an honour to live in a city distinguished by its diversity and pluralism, and these aspects of our urban community are why the Aga Khan and his foundation chose to build their museum in Toronto.

Perhaps the idea of Islamic art is intimidating and confusing? It encompasses all art made in Muslim-dominant countries, including art made by non-Muslims, and art by Muslims living in non-Muslim-dominant countries. This expansive definition emphasizes broad cultural traditions, not the spiritual or religious aspects of the art. Because the collection spans such a range of human achievement and activity, it is impossible to generalize about it except to say that the works in the Aga Khan fundamentally bear witness to our common humanity. This is art made for and used by people who loved their families, hoped and dreamed for a better future, and sometimes suffered deep loss and grief.

I’d like to direct the rest of my comments to fellow Christians who may be reluctant to make a visit or who are ambivalent about the museum’s importance within our city. There are two main reasons why Christians should make an effort to visit the museum. First, we love others by learning about them. Educating ourselves about others’ histories, beliefs, languages, and cultures is essential for us to love others, which is the greatest commandment that Jesus gave his disciples. Fearing others, however, makes it impossible for us to reach out and accept their invitation to meet and share. The reality is that although we fear terrorist organizations like ISIS, that group has distorted and corrupted Islam for their own purposes. ISIS is fundamentally different from the beliefs and practices of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world.

Second, learning about Islamic art opens our minds to the bigness and interconnectedness of our history. It’s no surprise that many Christians tend to cherry-pick the key historical moments that shape their world views: Jesus’ lifetime in the first century, Luther and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century with wars, feminism, and rock ’n’ roll. Learning about Islamic art highlights different key moments in history, from the seventh and eighth century emergence of the Islamic caliphate that spread from the Arabian peninsula across north Africa to the Iberian peninsula, to the fifteenth century when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, the beleaguered Byzantine Empire ended and European Renaissance scholars revived maths and sciences by reading the ancient Greek sources preserved for centuries by Arabic-speaking scholars. The interconnectedness of Christian history with cultural developments among Islamic and other non-Christian groups throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia is only beginning to be more fully explored by scholars. Recent exhibitions, notably the show in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC called Byzantium and Islam, highlight some of these connections especially in the ways Christianity and Islam responded and shaped one another.

Our world is constantly changing in unexpected ways. While many North Americans are moving further away from religious practices and beliefs, and while many have assumed that we would eventually “mature” as a modern society and “outgrow” our need for religion, around the world we see that religious practices and adherence to beliefs are increasing. Obviously, you can see in the way I use scare-quotes around mature and outgrow that I disagree with this assumption, that modern societies are nonreligious societies. Evidence from the developing world shows us a different picture, and the sooner we come to terms with this, the better able we are to build productive and enriching relationships and institutions. Now more than ever our openness to and curiosity about other cultures is the way forward as we grow and deepen our connections with one another.

As a student of Byzantine art history, I am thrilled with anticipation for my first visit to this new institution in the city where I live. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in our research about the connections between Islamic  and Orthodox communities. For a long time, our understanding of the ever-changing relationships between these groups was (and, frankly, continues to be) distorted by our contemporary political sphere. Even obtaining access to Byzantine monuments and archaeological sites was made difficult. We are not yet in a utopian world of full-access and cooperation among international institutions and scholarly projects, but changes such as the opening of this museum in Toronto signal a turn toward sharing and openness.

Now is the time to open our minds and imaginations to the manifold expressions of beauty and love from around the world brought here to our doorstep. See you at the museum!


Automator Workflow: Images Linked from Webpage into iPhoto

Lots of blogs these days—must be procrastinating something big!

Have you ever wanted to speed up the process of importing a bunch of images from a website into iPhoto? I have. Sometimes when I find a page of 5 or 10 thumbnails that link to great images, I have to deliberately stop and think to myself: can I afford the time it takes to add amy of these to my image library? It takes time to do all those clicks and of course to add the labelling data and image source to the description window in iPhoto.

I figured out the workflow in Automator that makes grabbing a bunch of linked images and importing them into iPhoto much faster and easier. Combine using this workflow with the shift-command-b batch change, and you have an improved time-saving process for building an image library.

Here’s the Automator flow:

1. Get current Webpage from Safari

The top window in Safari should be the one you want to use as your source for images. It should be a window that has a bunch of thumbnails that link to higher-res images you want to bring into iPhoto.

2. Get Image URLs from Webpage

Choose “linked from these webpages.”

3. Download URLs

The destination folder needs to be specified. I typically create a folder in my Pictures folder, but because I delete the images after they’ve been added to iPhoto, it doesn’t really matter where they are stored as long as there isn’t anything else in that folder that may confuse Automator in the next steps.

4. Get Specified Finder Items

Again, the folder needs to be specified. This is the same folder you specified in the previous step.

5. Import Files into iPhoto

I usually create a new album so that I can easily find these images in iPhoto. Here, I usually choose the option to delete the source images from my pictures folder so that I don’t end up cluttering my hard drive with duplicates of images. Keep in mind, I often end up exporting images from iPhoto in my current research folder so that I have those images ready to open and share.

5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto
5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto


12C New Testament Returning Home

This is a great image of St. John the Evangelist from a middle Byzantine manuscript made by the scribe Theoktistos in 1133. It’s catalogue number 47 in Glory of Byzantium (1997).

The manuscript’s proportions are somewhat taller and narrower (22.1 x 18.1 cm) than other Gospel books, which may explain why the Evangelist is shown standing instead of seated in his author portrait. Notice, too, how the hand of God emerges from the upper left corner reminding us that this Gospel was dictated by God. The focus of this image is the intense connection between John’s eyes and God’s hand making a gesture of speech. Compare this to the image of St Matthew shown standing with his feet apart, ready to step forward. He is an active reader (and writer) of the Gospels.

What do you do when you discover an object as wonderful as this is in your art collection has a history of being stolen before you bought it? GIVE IT BACK. This is precisely what the J Paul Getty Museum is doing now that they know that the 12th-century New Testament manuscript that they bought in 1983 had been stolen from the Holy Monastery of Dionysiou, Mount Athos, over 50 years ago. The manuscript was bought by the museum as part of a much larger and well-documented collection of art, and it is currently on view at the Getty in the “Heaven and Earth” exhibition.

There is some important cultural diplomacy going on here, too. The Getty announced the return (here and here) of the manuscript on Monday, the day before the Greek Minister of Culture attended a preview of the exhibition.

It is helpful to put this decision to return the manuscript back to its monastery into context. The Getty Museum has returned many works of art back to their original locations including several antique sculptures.

A notable artifact returned from the Getty is this sculpture of Aphrodite which was returned to Italy in 2011. This page at the Smithsonian summarizes the recent wave of repatriated artifacts to Greece and Italy. It includes a list of many of the other works that have been recently sent back by other American museums such as this krater which was once in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In some ways the tension seems to be about how richly endowed American museums can’t just buy all out the cultural heritage of Old World cultures. It’s good to be reminded that we have to travel to other continents to see these artifacts; we can’t import everything to the new world. It’s a reminder for collectors to be prepared for new evidence about the objects in their collections.

For art historians, it’s a good reminder that the provenances of even some of the most well known objects may be in dispute. UNESCO’s Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws should help everyone figure out what is legal. And the Getty has taken a leadership position in this research by creating the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance. This is an AMAZING resource! Likewise, this site gives links to many other projects dealing with provenance, especially for works made in more recent centuries.

I suppose most art historians gloss over provenance because it’s part of the larger project of making attributions. But it’s good to remember that how we identify something has so much to do with how we interpret that thing. In other words, even if I’m not an owner or collector of these objects, their histories as objects should be an essential aspect of my relationship with them.

I recently heard a story about a collector who paid somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars for a work of art that has recently been shown to be a fake. It wasn’t stolen or looted; it just wasn’t an authentic work by the artist he thought it was. And unfortunately, because of the way our legal system works, he is expected to destroy the work of art because it was a forgery. Even though this man has no intention of selling the work of art and even though he has come to terms with the fact that the painting is a forgery, he is not allowed to keep it it and privately enjoy the picture. I find these situations perplexing: why can’t he keep and enjoy the picture in the privacy of his own home? Authenticity and maintaining an artist’s oeuvre—these are the issues that matter.

Icon of the Crucifixion, 8th century, Mt Sinai

Icon of the Crucifixion, 8th cent., Mt. Sinai (image: Cormack: Byzantine Art, p. 69 , 2000)

I was asked to write a piece to spark discussion on this icon for a new Byzantine History forum on the American Historical Association Communities website. Here’s what I wrote:

This is one of the most important icons that survive from Byzantium’s “dark ages.” Images of the Crucifixion were central in the debates about how Christ could be represented and venerated in Christian imagery (Corrigan, for example). It makes sense that many art historians position this work against the backdrop of imperial sponsored iconoclasm and emphasize its isolated and protected location at Mt. Sinai. Because this region of the Sinai peninsula was no longer part of the Byzantine Empire after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, we use the works of art preserved there like relics from a time unspoiled by the destruction of images that (almost) erased history in other places like Constantinople.

Specialists are still digesting the recent reevaluation by Brubaker and Haldon of the primary sources that tells us about imperially-sponsored iconoclasm. I am curious how could we re-imagine our theologically-driven interpretations of this icon in light of their deemphasis on the role of image theory and theology in this period? What if we interpret this work as one of many religious images made in an uninterrupted production of images from this time? Would such a reading take pressure off of this work from being an almost isolated icon on the vanguard of a newly defined and proscribed cult of images?

Crucifixion and Three Marys at the Tomb, Rabbula Gospels, Syriac, 586; now in Florence, Laurentian Library (image: http://www.oberlin.edu/images/Art315/Art315d.html)

In the icon we see Christ crucified with his eyes closed which probably signifies he is dead, or more specifically, that his human body is dead.  A comparison with an earlier depiction of the Crucifixion in the Rabbula Gospels (Syriac, 586 AD) shows a similar depiction of Christ on the cross wearing the purple colobium, or long sleeveless tunic, the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ, and the soldiers below the cross debating who should take Christ’s special garment. On the icon, the thieves’s names are inscribed in gold, Gestas and Demas, whereas in the manuscript, only the name Loginos (Longinus) is written in Greek characters over the head of the Roman soldier thrusting his spear into Christ’s side.

In contrast, the nearly contemporary fresco of the Crucifixion from Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (741–52), shows Christ again wearing the colobium, but no thieves crucified at his side, and no soldiers fighting at the foot of the cross. Again, this image was produced in a region no longer under Byzantine control and therefore not subject to the destruction of images. Rather, this work again repeats Christ’s striking and all-knowing vision with piercing eyes. The icon-like fresco was painted in the chapel to the north of the main apse, and this church was managed by Greek monks in Rome with connections to various popes.

Crucifixion, fresco, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome (image: Stella Arena, Maria et alia. Roma dall’Antichita al Medioevo Archeologia e Storia. Vol.1. 2001)

Although the Sinai icon does show a shift in the focus of crucifixion imagery from his everliving divine nature to his human death, it offers a complicated and potentially problematic solution to the problem of representing Christ’s dual natures. Our eyes are brought to Christ’s side through the gaze all of the other figures and angels who are steadfastly focused on the dreadful outpouring of blood and water from his body. Their attention to this sign of his death is reinforced by the bright contrast of the whites of their eyes indicating their unwavering focus on the cross. Barber suggests this depiction of his death verged on heresy by showing the death of both his human and divine natures through the two streams of blood and water. The parallel connection between this direct stream of water and blood and the water and wine transformed through the Eucharistic liturgy is self-evident. Following the flow of these elements from his body to the Virgin, we see her left hand raised, pointing to her face, and holding what appears to be a strap or chord—perhaps from her legendary girdle? Her gesture and prop need to be explained.

In the other two crucifixion images I mentioned, Longinus is shown with his name inscribed immortalizing his spearing of Christ thereby fixing this apocryphal legend into the central Christian narrative. Why not evaluate this icon in terms of its relationships with Biblical and apocryphal Crucifixion narratives? And why not probe this image to see what it tells us about sight-lines, the veneration of images, relics like the Virgin’s girdle, and Eucharistic rituals? Finally, on this icon the decoration of Christ’s robe and nimbus, and the nimbi of the angels were originally gilded. Does this evidence add anything to our understanding of this work’s function as a holy image and icon?

Works cited:

Barber, Charles. “Catalogue 4, Crucifixion with Two Thieves.” Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai. Edited by Robert Nelson. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.

Brubaker, Leslie and John Haldon. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680–850: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Corrigan, Kathleen. “Text and Image on an Icon of the Crucifixion at Mount Sinai.” The Sacred Image East and West. Edited by Robert Ousterhout and Leslie Brubaker.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.


The Aga Khan Museum (in Toronto) collection catalogue to be published September 2014

Pattern and Light: The Aga Khan Museum

Title: Pattern and Light: The Aga Khan Museum
Text: Philip Jodidio, Ruba Kana’an, Assadullah Melikian-Chirvani and Luis Monreal, Preface by Henry S. Kim
Price: $50.00
ISBN: 9780847844296
Publisher: Skira Rizzoli
Language: English
Available: September 16, 2014

Blurb on Rizzoliusa.com:

“An introduction to 1,400 years of Islamic art and culture as seen through the stunning and diverse masterpieces of the new Aga Khan Museum. Opening in 2014 in Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum will be a showplace for Islamic art and culture unlike anything in the Western Hemisphere. This richly illustrated volume features the new museum and park complex and more than one hundred rare treasures from one of the most important collections of Islamic art and objects in the world, assembled by His Highness the Aga Khan and his family. Masterpieces of design, texture, and artistry created from 600 AD to the 1800s in Spain, North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, Iran, Central Asia, India, and China, the works include radiant illuminations and calligraphy; marvels in ivory, wood, glass, and metal; and exquisite paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and textiles.

Finding Free Images for Art Historians


This is a page I started compiling several months ago of websites that make available images that are either in the public domain or are open access and therefore free for us to use in our teaching and publications.

I recently learned about a similar effort by Asa Mittman on the Art History Rules! website. His site gives more info on each link because each institution has its own way of thinking about these policies.   http://www.arthistoryrules.com/Art_History_Online/Copyright_Rules.html

Icons and Cultural Identity Ukraine

Toronto’s expression of solidarity for the Ukrainian people in this time of turmoil is expressed in City Hall with this small memorial shrine. This is an icon of the Virgin Blachernitissa shown with the Christ child in a medallion hovering over her chest with outstretched arms. Through this icon the Virgin exercised her most powerful work as protector and intercessor on behalf of the people of Constantinople; now she defends and intercedes on behalf of the people of Ukraine.

This memorial shrine is another example of the solidarity felt by some Torontonians with the ongoing uncertainty in Ukraine. On Monday night a group of Ukrainian-Canadians gathered at City Hall in a vigil to express their solidarity. Interestingly, these gestures of solidarity and support were organized by the Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly while Mayor Rob Ford was preoccupied on his PR trip to Los Angeles to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel show.

Here are a few other observations from this developing story:

A friend posted this video from BBC’s Newsnight on the emerging Neo-Nazi presence now gaining a foothold in the vacuum of real leadership and power. Ethnic distinctness remains a fundamental question for those in the Ukraine.

The New Yorker ran this article by Adam Gopnik on some historical issues in Crimea. Many are drawing parallels between this situation and the assignation of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the start of the first World War. This is a scary scenario and one to be avoided at all costs.

Our MP Chrystia Freeland describes her experiences in Kyiv where she witnessed first-hand the spirit of the revolution. She is optimistic, but more importantly as she explains in this NYTimes op-ed she is convinced that the Russian pressure on Ukraine, which if Ukraine disintegrates would destabilize the political and ethnic fabric of Europe, is paradoxically working to unite Ukrainians striving for a new government. She also stresses that most inhabitants are at least bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian, which means dividing the population based on linguistic preference or other ethnic markers is a poor reflection of their cultural identities and political beliefs. I’m not sure our western media adequately understand and report on the lukewarm reception of the Russian forces there. Russians are not liberators (ok, we understand that fact) and their cause is not sparking a groundswell of support.

I recently learned about Putin’s order that the Black Madonna of Kazan be flown over the Black Sea. Icons, it seems, are at the forefront of these cultural moves blessing and defending people in every corner.