Horses have long been a rich and constant element of Islamic art and culture. The Mongolian horse—a small, heavy-boned, agile, and tireless animal that became instrumental when the Mongol armies moved across Central Asia in the thirteenth century—has come to symbolize the introduction of new cultures and traditions to the eastern Islamic world. Uniting some twenty-five objects from the Museum's collection, this exhibition examines both realistic and symbolic depictions of the horse in Islamic art.
Focused primarily on artworks from the Seljuq and Ilkhanid Iran, which spanned approximately from the eleventh through the fourteenth century, the exhibition displays horse images in several media, including illustrated manuscripts, inlaid metalwork, ceramic tiles, stone, textiles, and even two saddles from Central Asia. The Seljuqs were a nomadic Turkic people, who originated in Central Asia and settled mainly in Iran and Anatolia starting in the eleventh century. The Ilkhanids—the Mongols of Iran—trace their origins to Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, who led the Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the mid-thirteenth century.
A luster-painted wall tile from the period of Ilkhanid rule (1256–1353) features two Ilkhanid horsemen against a densely foliated background. Swords ready, the horsemen are shown at the moment of collision, as both hunt the same antelope. In another Ilkhanid work, a horse is depicted drawing the funeral bier of the Mongol hero Isfandiyar in an illustrated leaf (1320–30) from the Persian epic, the Shahnama ("The Book of Kings"). The scroll painting Grooms and Horses by Three Generations of the Chao Family represents China's Yuan dynasty (1278–1368), which was founded by Kublai Khan, another grandson of Genghis Khan. These works invite comparisons between two contemporary but stylistically distinct painting traditions.
A carved stone tympanum, possibly from the house of a prince of the Golden Horde—the Mongol state that comprised most of Russia from the mid-thirteenth to the fourteenth century—depicts a horseman and his mount. Certain elements of the costume—such as the cloud collar and trappings—are typical of the post-Ilkhanid period, suggesting that the carved tympanum is probably from the late-fourteenth century. The house of the prince was in the Caucasus region near the Caspian coast.
Several Seljuq works, including colorful overglaze painted ceramics and a carved roundel, are also on view in the exhibition.