In a lifetime characterized by war and conquest, Genghis Khan (1167?–1227) forged the largest contiguous land empire in human history. His legacy was a unified Mongol confederacy that his sons and grandsons ruled for more than a century. During this peaceful era, people, objects, and ideas moved with unprecedented freedom over a vast territory that reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. The confluence of previously distant cultures yielded a bold new visual aesthetic that would resonate in Islamic art for centuries to come.
Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the landmark traveling exhibition The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Arts and Culture in Western Asia, 1256–1353 will explore the influence of China's Yüan dynasty, founded by Kublai Khan (a grandson of Genghis Khan), on the art and culture of Iran's Ilkhanid dynasty, founded by Hulagu (another of his grandsons). On view will be some 200 works from museums and collections worldwide, including rare textiles, ceramics, jewelry and metalwork, works in stone and wood, and outstanding examples of the art of the book. A highlight will be the display of more than 30 vividly illustrated pages from the Great Mongol Shahnama (Book of Kings). Now dispersed in many collections worldwide, this version of the Iranian epic—made for a royal patron—is one of the most luxurious ever produced.
The exhibition is made possible in part by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund.
Additional support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The exhibition has been organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
"The Ilkhanid period in Iran was one of great cultural achievement," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, "as local artists and artisans were introduced to previously unknown artistic traditions from East Asia and attempted to respond to the tastes of their new royal patrons, the Mongol rulers. Through the great masterpieces of Ilkhanid art—which have been gathered from major collections around the world, yet are seldom, if ever, seen in this country—the Metropolitan will present works of enormous art historical importance that reflect the convergence of the two of the world's major cultures, those of East and West Asia."
Exhibition curator Stefano Carboni added: "The exhibition is the first systematic investigation of the artistry attained in the Iranian world after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. During this unique moment in history—the 100–year period when eastern and western Asia were united under Mongol rule—Islamic art in Iran was profoundly changed by influences from abroad." The exhibition will be arranged thematically and will include works in all media, with special emphasis on illustrated manuscripts and ceramics.
At the time of the Mongol conquest, the art of the illuminated and illustrated book already was highly developed in Iran after five centuries of Islamic rule. Under the Ilkhanids, manuscript illustration and calligraphy attained new heights, as numerous examples in the exhibition will show. Of particular note are two royal Ilkhanid manuscripts—the Jamic al–Tavarikh (the first–ever "History of the World," two volumes of which have survived) and the Great Mongol Shahnama (Book of Kings). The choice of specific episodes of the Shahnama for illustration and the recasting of Iranian heroes in the guise and costume of Mongol rulers indicate that these works served the political purpose of legitimizing the ruling elite. Large sections of both manuscripts will be reunited specifically for this exhibition.
Several architectural elements also will be on view, including ceramic tiles from the archaeological site of Takht–i Sulayman (Iran)—the only surviving ruined palace of the Ilkhanid period. Shown along with computer-generated photographic-reproduction tiles and courtly furnishings, the tiles will suggest the visual richness of the palaces of the time.
Luxury textiles were highly favored by the Mongols and—because of their portability—played a crucial role in the transmission of artistic ideas from East to West. The exhibition will include fragments of elaborately woven silks bearing eastern Asian designs that entered the visual vocabulary of western Asia through trade during the Mongol period.
An illustrated catalogue—published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press—will accompany the exhibition. It will include essays by an interdisciplinary team of scholars, and has been edited by the exhibition's organizing curators, Stefano Carboni from the Metropolitan and Linda Komaroff from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.