Theater & art

Art Review

The appeal of the Persianate

“Solomon Enthroned,” a folio from a 16th-century manuscript of the “Shahnama” (“Book of Kings”), from the “In Harmony” exhibit of Islamic art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
“Solomon Enthroned,” a folio from a 16th-century manuscript of the “Shahnama” (“Book of Kings”), from the “In Harmony” exhibit of Islamic art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

CAMBRIDGE — The late Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood, through their Calderwood Charita08calderwood ble Foundation, bestowed notable gifts on numerous Boston cultural institutions. Anyone attending a performance at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Stanford Calderwood Pavilion or visiting the Gardner Museum, presided over by its Norma Jean Calderwood director, is reminded of their largess.

It’s unlikely that any part of the Calderwood legacy is as beguiling as the collection of Islamic art they donated to Harvard University, in 2002. The lion’s share of that collection (including, as it happens, a quite lovely 16th-century Iranian drawing of a lioness) makes up “In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art.” The exhibition runs through June 1 at the university’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

Norma Jean Calderwood, who taught Islamic art at Boston College, Simmons College, and the Museum of Fine Arts, collected it for some three decades, starting in the late 1960s. She took a particular interest in Persianate art, items made either in Persia (present-day Iran) or adjacent regions under the influence of Persian culture, most dating from between the ninth and 19th centuries.


“In Harmony” comprises more than 140 items, divided into three types: ceramics, folios from illuminated manuscripts, and single-page drawings and paintings. Each category group gets its own space in the show, which somehow manages to be both intimate (in the nature of the objects) and overwhelming (all those items fit into a relatively small area). In a charming linkage of the categories, the show includes four pen boxes. Envy the lucky scribes who owned them.

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The bowls, jars, jugs, and tiles in the ceramics section of the show have an elegant simplicity that often reveals itself to be something more on closer inspection. One could study for a long time the interlaced radial design of a bowl from Iran, dating to the late 12th or early 13th century, and not come close to tiring of its intricate beauty. It’s a marvel of detailing.

That’s the case with so many works in “In Harmony,” even more those on paper perhaps than with the ceramics. In recognition of that detailing, the show has a dozen magnifying glasses available for viewers who might want to inspect an item more closely. It’s a mark of the care with which curator Mary McWilliams has put together the show.

The manuscript pages are the heart of “In Harmony.” Throughout them, there’s an interplay between figuration and abstract decoration. That interplay is a different sort of harmony. Whenever possible, Calderwood liked to get multiple pages from the same manuscript. Which means there are several instances in the show where viewers can follow the development of a narrative or delination of the style of a given artist or workshop.

That said, it’s particular, unexpected elements that can be most striking. There’s the astonishing shade of lavender in “Majnum in the Wilderness,” from 1584, or the sight of a tree growing through the roof in “The Trial by Fire of Siyavush,” from the late 16th or early 17th century.


Best of all is the lesson in aerial anatomy offered by “Solomon Enthroned,” a notably gorgeous folio from a 16th-century manuscript of the “Shahnama” (“Book of Kings”): Who knew that angels’ wings could so resemble those of pelicans?

Mark Feeney can be reached at