Music for the children of our time

The Edukators

The angry man of sculpture

Attack on artistic freedom in Russia

Pushing at the edges

The secret life of objects

Porcelain that challenged the world

Bill Brandt

Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands


The inspiration of Italian cinema


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Wilkie - Painter of everyday life

Techno-gothic fusion


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Romney - mirroring the gentry

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Paul Klee: The nature of creation

John Pilger's Great Eyewitness Photographers

Sarah Medway: In the Realm of the Senses

A glimpse of the Hermitage

Vermeer at the National Gallery

Paul Signac: Travels in France

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Century City

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The disasters of war

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Frances Aviva Blane

Caro's challenge

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Rebel behind the American movement

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Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands

The artistic qualities of Islamic art should be appreciated in the context of world art, showing the essential unity of human culture, Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, explained when opening this exhibition. Many of the precious masterpieces on display are drawn from the collections of the Hermitage, complemented by others from the privately owned Khalili collection in London.

Piotrovsky, who is well-versed in the Islamic cultures of Russia, seemed to be throwing down a challenge to the view that today's world must inevitably be torn apart by a "clash of civilisations". The exhibition opened in the shadow of the bombing of Karbala pilgrims and with fighting raging in Iraq, so his words gained a powerful resonance.

The cultures which produced magnificent metalwork, fabrics and manuscripts ranged from Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Mughal India, as well as other territories, which were formerly part of the Russian Empire.

And indeed, while Islamic art undoubtedly has its own special qualities, the objects on display are simultaneously alien and familiar. The sequence of displays at Somerset House begins with the austere calligraphic abstraction of verses from the Ku-ran, including textiles displayed at the Ka'ba at Mecca and tiles from 13th century Persian shrines. These suddenly give way to objects of total luxury from the Caliphate courts of the 9th-12th centuries. Dazzling silk fabrics made in the Ottoman period with elaborate decorative motifs based on animals and plants were incorporated into the church vestments of Orthodox Christianity.

The universal nature of Islamic art becomes clearer if we understand how the gold and silversmiths of Khorasan (this ancient Persian province included parts which are today in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) were forced westwards, first to Mosul in Iraq and then to Syria and Egypt.

Surprisingly for those who may think that Islam bans all human representation, the exhibition features formal portraits of its leaders and even scantily-clad ladies who seemed to have haunted the royal palaces.