Dining out in Persia

Although figures, flowers, trees, and objects decorate this large Islamic wall panel of tiles, it is the abundance of vivid colors and dance of patterns that predominate. The brilliance of the blues, yellows, greens, and whites powerfully conveys (though in a highly stylized way) a garden in spring or summer. The theme is of aristocrats enjoying a picnic. Barry Wood, a curator in the Asian Department of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, says that such an alfresco scene "is a venerable one in Islamic art, both as a literary trope and in the visual arts." It evokes a sense of poetry as well as delighting the eyes.

According to Mr. Wood, the panel is said to have come from Chihil Sutun, a royal pavilion in Isfahan, Iran. Several members of the V&A staff, including Wood, went to Iran last autumn and visited Chihil Sutun. No tile panels like this one were still in place there, Wood notes, but "there were empty spaces on the walls below windows and niches which shared the panel's distinctive shape." From that he concluded that the panel could, indeed, have come from there or from another royal Iranian building of the mid-to-late 17th century.

The costly colors, painted in enamel onto a white bodied, compound ceramic substance known as "fritware," are themselves evidence of wealth. Fritware is not clay-based, though small quantities of fine white clay are incorporated into it. The main ingredient is a finely ground quartz powder. "Frit," a glassy substance, is added to bind it after it is fired. The clay provides plasticity.

Although Islamic art - a phrase covering a vast area and a long period - is often said to consist exclusively of nonfigural patterns because of a religious objection to imagemaking, this panel is energetic evidence of a contrary tendency. Iran was ruled by the Safavid dynasty, and, Wood states, "they were more than happy to flout the supposed Islamic restriction on figural imagery."

This panel is part of an exhibition of the V&A's collection of Islamic art called "Palace and Mosque," at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, until Sept. 4.

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