Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Friday, May 29, 2020

Exploring the Four Main Themes of Islamic Art

Islamic art covers a vast geographical and chronological spectrum, from Spain to Southeast Asia over 1400 years. Though, despite all the differences, it is undeniable that there are common subjects and themes uniting the visual arts of the Islamic world. Over the centuries, these artists elaborated on four major subjects of decoration: calligraphy, geometry, vegetal and arabesque ornamentation, and figures. Let’s take a look at those themes.


Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. Arabic letters decorate objects ranging from ceramic bowls to marble buildings. Arabic script grew in importance following the revelation of the Qur’an from God to the Prophet Muhammad. Even before his death, Muhammad’s followers and associates had begun to transcribe the Qur’an. Calligraphers soon began to transform Arabic writing into an art form.

During the rise of Islam and the early period, between the 7th and 10th centuries, Kufic was used for copying Qur’ans and other manuscripts. It is characterized by its unconnected blocky letters that are evenly spaced. Kufic manuscripts of the Qu’ran were intentionally difficult to read—in order to slow down the readers so that they can concentrate on God’s word. Here is a page from a Qur’an dating between 850 and 1000, written in Kufic.

Fig. 1. Folio from a Qur’an Manuscript, Iraq or Syria, 9th-10th century, ink,
opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 
Anonymous Gift, 1985.365

However, as the Muslim population began to grow, calligraphers adopted more common scripts to make the Qur’an more legible and accessible. Between the 10th to the 15th centuries the “Six Pens” was developed, a group of rounded scripts that enhanced the readability by providing the reader with a full range of diacritical marks and vocalizations. They are naksh, thuluth, muhaqqaq, rayhani, riqa‘, and tawqi‘. Local scripts also developed. For example, nasta’liq, which developed and was used in Central Asia and Iran and spread to Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India. Below is an example of Persian love poetry written in nasta’liq.

Fig. 2. Folio from a copy of the Divan (Anthology) of Amir Shahi, Iran,
probably Tabriz, 17th century, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Karl L. Briel, 1986.190

Calligraphers attempted to make their work look effortless. It was meant to be timeless and cerebral, a reflection of God’s permanence and immutability. Calligraphers painstakingly made sure that their work left no trace of the physical action it took to create it, or any mark of distinction. In other words, it is extremely difficult to attribute Islamic calligraphy to a calligrapher unless they signed their work.


Geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture, but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects.

Fig. 3. Pottery Fragment, Iran, 13th-14th century, stonepaste and polychrome glaze;
Museum Purchase, 1938.101.13

While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and the pre-Islamic empire of the Sasanians (r. 224-651 CE) in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from these classical traditions, and then complicated and elaborated upon them, particularly through the works of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists. This experimentation and elaboration led to new forms of decoration that stressed the importance of unity, symmetry, proportion, balance, and order.

The four basic shapes, or "repeat units," from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons. The basic shapes were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom and fluidity in its repetition and complexity, and it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well, such as vegetal patterns and figures.

Vegetal and Arabesque Designs

Ornamentation based on plants, stems, leaves, and flowers, adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. They are commonly employed alone or in combination with other types of forms of embellishment, such as calligraphy.

Fig. 4. Flowering Plant Beside a Pond, Iran, Safavid period, 17th century; cut silk,
voided satin velvet, with brocading. Museum Purchase, 1938.2

Like geometric patterns, vegetal decoration was inherited from pre-Islamic traditions from the late antique world of the Mediterranean basin and from the Sasanians. The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of semi-naturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns for these sources. This was followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons.

It was not until the 10th century that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged. There was a desire to create patterns that prompted the notion of infinite expansion and growth in all directions, which culminated into the most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as “arabesque”. The term was coined in the early 19th century following Napoleon’s famed expedition to Egypt.

Arabesques are composed of the same elements inherited from pre-Islamic traditions, such as vines and leaves, stems, and flowers. However, rather than being restricted to a geometric framework and confined space, the arabesque became the framework itself, controlling the space and its own movement within it. The entangled decoration of flowers and vines chiseled across the surface in the 19th-century Persian shield below is a prime example of the arabesque.

Fig. 5. Sipar (Shield), Iran, 19th century, steel, silver, brass, traces of gilded;
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection, 2014.1019


Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In most cases, figures are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, and thus were a crucial and prominent feature in manuscript illumination. Manuscript paintings acted as visual aids to the text, and therefore no restrictions to the representation of figures were imposed. Here is another example from a 14th-century copy of the Shahnama. It depicts the Sasanian king, Bahram Gur (r. 420-438 CE), hunting wild ass.

Fig. 6. “Bahram Gur Hunting Onagers”, from the “Great Mongol” Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Ilkhanid period, 1330s, opaque
watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.24

Since patrons of Islamic art were predominantly of royalty, nobility, or from the wealthy classes, most surviving works that depict figures that are not from narratives, show courtly figures. These courtly figures are typically shown in processions, hunting, lounging in gardens and feasting. The painting below, intended for an album, shows a male and female figure, in elegant dress, enjoying wine under a chinar tree.

Fig. 7. Youths Drinking Wine in a Landscape, Persian,
Qajar period, 19th century, opaque watercolor and gold
on paper; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth L. Spahr, 1962.16

Animals were popular decorative figures and played secondary roles in illustrated manuscripts. They were commonly used to enhance scenes rather than to play any role in a narrative, although there are a few exceptions, such as the painting below, showing two camels locked in an eternal combat, and scientific studies and drawings.

Fig. 8. Two Camels in Combat, Iran, Safavid period, 17th-18th century, opaque watercolor,
ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.19

Fantastic figures also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were either derived from pre-Islamic mythological sources, or were created through the visual manipulation and experimentation of figural forms by artists.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
    May 29, 2020

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Explaining the Misconception of Figural Representation in Islamic Art

Many people believe that the representation of figures is forbidden in Islamic religion and culture, but this is false. The Qur’an, in fact, has extraordinarily little to say about art and admonishing against the representation of figures. However, this misconception exists for a reason, and there are several circumstances that lead to it:

1) Muslims believe that God is unique and without associate, which is why He cannot be represented as a figure. However, He can be represented through His word, the Qur’an. Therefore, mosques and other religious materials are heavily decorated with calligraphy.

2) The images of saints, as in Christian art, have no place in Islamic practice and worship. The images of Abrahamic prophets and the Prophet Muhammad exist because they are not considered divine figures—it is their deeds, not their person that represent the ideal to which Muslims aspire.

3) The Qur’an is not a narrative like the Torah or the Gospels. In fact, the way it is written would be quite difficult to illustrate.

In time, the lack of motive and opportunity to illustrate figures hardened into custom, and then law, and the absence of figures became a characteristic feature of Islamic religious art. Thus, mosques and other buildings intended for religious purposes do not have representations of people in them. Palaces, bathhouses, and locales designed for secular activities, on the other hand, often have figural decoration. However, it should be mentioned that, in some later periods, aniconism of the religious milieu and beliefs of the Muslim ruling body did affect the arts of the secular realms.

According to the Hadiths, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, he was aware of the difference between the religious and secular worlds; while Muhammad ordered all idols to be removed from the Ka’ba in Mecca, it is also documented that his home was decorated with textiles with figures on them. The Hadiths also credit Muhammad for stating, “God is beautiful and loves beauty”, which has been interpreted as a positive response to art and thus used constantly as a justification for the creation of art and the representation of figures in Islamic culture and society.

Fig. 1. Rudaba Letting Down Her Hair for Zal to Climb,
 folio from the Shahnama of Firdausi, Iran, Safavid period,
 17th-18th century, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on
paper; Bequest of Alexander H. Bullock, 1962.182.1

Overtime, different attitudes developed in different regions of the Islamic world: in North Africa, for example, figural representations were rare, most likely because of the conservative Maliki School of Religious Law that is followed there, whereas Iran is known for a having a vibrant traditional of representational art.

Fig. 1 (above) is a page from an 18th-century copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) written by the Persian poet Firdausi around 1010. With its interplay of lore and history, the epic offers models of conduct and kingship that inspired numerous generations of rulers and prompted the production of lavishly illustrated volumes for centuries. The image shows the princess Rudaba, letting down her long hair for her lover, Zal, to climb to see her in her palace tower. Rudaba and Zal eventually marry, and produce an heir, Rustam, who is the great hero of the Shahnama. Even the borders depict animals that include monkeys and a lion.

In some instances, within the Islamic world, the avoidance of images moved a step further to the actual destruction of images, so aniconism turned into iconoclasm. There are examples of manuscripts throughout Islamic history that have fallen prey to iconoclasm, with their figures’ faces scratched or erased off. Iconoclasts did not necessarily want to destroy the figures, but they wanted to render them lifeless and impotent of any power that would be a threat to God and monotheism.

In 2006, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Goma’a, the country’s top Islamic jurist, issued a fatwa or proclamation declaring that exhibition of statues in homes is un-Islamic. He based his decision on, incidentally, an excerpt from the Hadith; according to ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ood, a friend the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet said “Those who will be most severely punished by Allah on the Day of Judgment will be the image-makers.”

So we can see how there is so much conflicting response to figural representation within the Islamic world from being accepting of it to rejecting it, and even being violent towards it, when there is conflict within the interpretations of Islam.

Even the term “Islam” with regard to the practice of the religion itself causes some issues, as it suggests that all Muslims today and in the past shared similar perspectives and interpretations; in actuality, there are and have always been many interpretations of Islam, just as artists, patrons, and viewers have approached the visual arts in many different ways in the Muslim world.

However, despite all the differences, it is undeniable that there are common subjects and themes that do unite the visual arts of the Islamic world. Over the centuries, artists from Spain to Southeast Asia have elaborated on four major subjects of decoration: calligraphy, geometry, vegetal and arabesque ornamentation, and figures. These decoration subjects will be examined in an upcoming WAM Update.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
May 26, 2020

Friday, May 22, 2020

Among Friends in the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery

In my role as a WAM docent, I did some research on the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery and learned that many of these objects were likely gifts: functional, beautiful, and valuable desk accessories, screens, paper weights, dishes, vases, boxes, and other containers. The objects are adorned with motifs such as animals, birds, plants, mythical creatures, natural landscape features, humans in various activities, or other designs. These design motifs indeed beautify the objects, show the skill of the artisans, and enhance the value of the objects.

However, they also serve as puns and rebuses in the Chinese language and convey specific “coded” messages to a knowledgeable viewer. Each time I visited the gallery, I imagined lots of happy talk among a warm group of friends, congratulating and sending best wishes to each other.

The Chinese language is made for word play and punning as there are so many homophones (words with the same sound). Visual artists and artisans take advantage of this feature to link word and image and many common design motifs are explicitly chosen for this reason. For example, a bat decoration on a woman’s hairpin may seem a strange choice to someone of another culture and language.

However, the word for “bat,” fu in Chinese, is a homophone or pun for fu, or “good fortune.” Bat designs decorate lots of Chinese artworks, as well as clothing items, everyday objects, architectural details, signs, and advertisements.

Let’s look at a few objects in the gallery and decode some of the common visual symbols to discover their messages.

Fig. 1: Boulder with Mountain Scenes: Two Deer on a Path, late 18th–early 19th C.,
 Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), pale green nephrite with white and russet areas.
Gift of Maria and John Dirlam, 1997.137

If you received a card with a deer image and the inside inscribed with, “You are so ‘deer’ to me,” it’s obvious the deer image is meant to convey a “dear” affection. Was this jade boulder (Fig.1) with the two deer possibly meant as a valentine or love letter?

In traditional Chinese culture, deer in a forest imply “long life” as deer eat lichens and fungus, which traditional Chinese medicines attributes good health and long life. The other meaning of “deer,” however, is based on a pun. “Deer” is lu in Chinese, is an exact homophone of lu or “official salary.” The recipient of this gift may have received this jade as congratulations for passing the highly competitive civil service examination in Imperial China and winning a lifelong position with a big salary. This jade boulder is communicating, “You scored! Congratulations on your hard work!  Live long and prosper.”

Fig. 2: One of a Pair of Vases with Lids and Chains, 19th century, Qing Dynasty
(1644–1911), white jadeite w/ some green, and hints of lavender.
Gift of John and Maria Dirlam, 2002.550

The two matching vases share the plum tree motif with its five-petaled blossoms (Fig. 2). The plum, mei, is a harbinger of spring as it blooms early in the season, even in snow. In China, this beautiful, graceful, and long-lived tree is symbolic of hope and toughness—good qualities for life.

Depicted on the vases up in the plum branches are magpie birds, xi que, which allude to a famous folk tale that tells of the birds reuniting separated lovers. But the word-image link on this vase is even more complex and fun. The first part of “magpie,” xi, means “happiness,” and the sentence, “The magpies are up in the plum tree,” is homophonous with the Chinese xi shang mei shao—a wish for “happiness up to one’s eyebrows!”

The chains on the vase handles, lian, pun with “connections” and “continuity.”  The pair of vases were possibly a wedding gift.

Fig. 3: Jar with Plum Blossom and Cracked Ice Design (Blue-and-white ware), Jindezhen studio in Jiangxi Province,
Kangxi Period (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911),
porcelain with cobalt blue under clear lime-alkali glaze; pierced
and carved ebony lid with nephrite medallion.
Museum purchase, 1916.4

There also is a plum motif on this vase (Fig. 3) that conveys hope and grace under pressure. The “Cracked Ice Design” refers to the crackle glaze on the vase. “Cracks” are sui in Chinese. “Many cracks” are sui sui, which sounds like “year after year.” The message is wishing “hope and perseverance year after year.” The vase also is a pun. “Vase” is ping, and sounds like “peace,” so the message expands to, “May you have hope, perseverance, and peace, year after year.” This object, a “ginger jar,” may have only been an everyday container for tea, fruits, or other edibles, but it still conveys good wishes to anyone who views it.
It is interesting that a gift can be given with the message encoded in its decorations. No need for a card or any words spoken. The recipient will understand the message!
Congratulations, stories, jokes, heartfelt feelings, and other messages are expressed in the Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery. The objects are silent until we learn how the images speak. The warmth sent with the gifts ironically contrasts with the coldness of the jade and porcelain objects themselves. The messages give us a glimpse into relationships among people who lived long ago, and what they hoped and wished for each other.

When the Museum reopens to the public, please visit our Chinese Decorative Arts Gallery to see these delightful objects and other enchanting highlights of the collection to discover their hidden messages.

—Diane Mammone, WAM Docent
May 22, 2020

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Conserving a Nipmuc Storage Basket Using Unexpected Materials

In art conservation, unexpected materials can be used to repair damaged art objects. Take for example Storage Basket (1998.123), a mid–19th century Nipmuc ash splint woven basket that will be included in the upcoming Luce 3 Reinstallation of the Lower Third American Gallery. It may be surprising to learn that the breaks and losses in the basket were repaired with Japanese paper, a material more commonly used by artists in printmaking.

Fig. 1. Before treatment, bottom corner (circled in white). Unknown Artist (Nipmuc Native
American Culture, New England, USA), Storage Basket (mid-19th century). Ash splints.

This acid-free paper, however, has been a popular restoration material among art conservators for quite a long time, especially by paper conservators. At WAM, Objects Conservator Paula Artal-Isbrand has used it for many years to repair artwork made of a broad range of materials such as ivory, glass, and even metal.

Fig. 2. After treatment, bottom corner (circled in white).

Members of the Nipmuc Native American Culture have traditionally resided in central Massachusetts, northern Rhode Island, and northern Connecticut. As they were displaced by European settlers in the mid-1700s, they began selling their traditional crafts such as baskets and works made from beads to the tourist industry.1 By the late 1800s, most Native American baskets were made primarily for decorative rather than utilitarian purposes.2

In 2019, members of the Nipmuc Nation Native American Tribe visited WAM and met with Erin Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art. They expressed their desire to the integrate Native American objects into the WAM collection and exhibitions. When they came across Storage Basket—to the mutual delight of the curator and members of the Nipmuc Nation—they immediately recognized its shape and size and were able to help reattribute the basket to the Nipmuc culture.

An identifying feature of Nipmuc baskets are the bands of narrow-fitting splints near the bottom edges and specific symbolic decorative painted designs. If you look closely around the circumference the basket you can see faded blue and red painted representations of vines, leaves, berries, and geometric triangle medallion motifs. When it arrived at the conservation lab, Storage Basket was covered in a light layer of dust and had several breaks and losses at the bottom edges and corners. The goal of the conservation treatment was to improve the structural and visual integrity of this unique work in the collection, and hopefully restore it so that the characteristic Nipmuc basket design, which had unfortunately faded to a great extent, would become more visible.

Materials used in conservation treatments need to be reversible and compatible with the original materials of the artwork, i.e. chemically inert. In addition to fulfilling these requirements, Japanese paper is lightweight, yet strong, and able to conform to the different break surfaces in the basket. Ash splints, the original material of the basket, are made by pounding the trunk of a tree with a mallet until the wood “separates into thin strips along the natural growth rings.”3

Fig. 3. During treatment: Toning.

However, ash splints were intentionally not used as fill material because it is important that the materials used by the conservator be different from the materials used by the artist. This is a rule of ethics conservators abide by as they do not their work to compete with that of the artist.

A large part of a conservator’s job is documenting the condition and treatment of the object. Before embarking on the conservation treatment, the basket was carefully examined to understand its materials, construction and condition issues. High-quality photography was conducted before, throughout, and after the treatment process. All conservation work proposed and conducted on the object was recorded.

Fig. 4. During treatment: Cutting.

Treatment began by carefully reducing the surface grime and dust on the basket using a range of “dry” cleaning techniques, including brushes and a specialty eraser. In an effort to prevent any distortions of the ash splint material, it was important to avoid introducing any moisture.

Fig. 5. During treatment: Re-weaving Japanese paper.

Next, Japanese paper was used to repair brakes and fill losses. Strips of Japanese paper were cut to the width of the missing weft and warp elements of the woven basket, toned with conservation grade acrylic paints to the exact color of the original basket material, and rewoven into the plaits of the basket with the delicate help of a few special tools. This delicate and meticulous process provided a safe method to repair this Native American object.

Fig. 6. After treatment, interior view.

—Elle Friedberg, Pre-Program Intern in Conservation, and Paula Artal-Isbrand, Objects Conservator
May 19, 2020

1 “Nipmuc Basket.” Connecticut Historical Society. Accessed April 13, 2020.

2 Ibid.

3 “Nipmuc Splint Basketry.” NativeTech. Accessed April 13, 2020.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Depicting the Divine: Meet the Hindu Gods in WAM’s Collection

Hinduism is the dominant and native religion of South Asia. It is a rich, pluralistic, and complex faith; it does not have an ecclesiastical order, governing body, prophet(s), and binding holy book; rather, it is comprised of a wide range of traditions, ideas, belief systems. Hindus can choose from a pantheon of 330 million gods and goddesses (which includes incarnations, or avatars) whom to worship.

There are, of course, primary deities that are popularly venerated, and are widely represented in the South Asia’s visual culture, across time periods, geographies, and media. Their multiple heads symbolize great power and intelligence, the cardinal directions, and associations to other deities, while multiple arms denote supernatural strength and power, as well as the and ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Deities’ hands are typically shown creating gestures (mudras) that signify various expressions and moods, or wielding weapons that signify the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and the vanquishing of demons. Each god and goddess is depicted with attributes and, at times, vehicles (vahanas) that are distinct to their iconography and identity. Here, we will look at a few representations of Hindu gods in WAM’s collection and what to look out for to identify them.

Fig. 1: Shiva as Mahesha, India, Chola period,
10th century, granite with traces of gesso and
red pigment; Eliza S. Paine Fund, 1964.16


Shiva is one of the members of the Hindu Trimurti or “Trinity”, which also consists of the gods Vishnu and Brahma. While the other two are known as the Preserver and the Creator, respectively, Shiva is known as the Destroyer. Although the title may have negative connotations, the god brings about destruction to clear paths for positive change and purification.

Worshippers of Shiva believe that the deity manifests himself in three stages, from the abstract to the concrete, symbolized by: the undecorated linga (“shaft”); the linga with one of more faces emerging from it; and, finally, Mahesha (“The Great”), from whom Vishnu and Brahma are born. This 10th-century sculpture in the collection, shows Shiva as Mahesha, with four faces: on the right is Brahma, in the center, Shiva; on the left Vishnu; and on the back, Rudra, who is believed to be the predecessor of Shiva.

Fig. 2: Vishnu, India, 10th-11th century, sandstone;
Alexander H. Bullock Fund, 1999.3


As mentioned above, Vishnu is one of the members of the Hindu Trimurti. He represents preservation, maintaining cosmic stability. Here, this sandstone sculpture shows Vishnu in the center, surrounded by celestial figures and mythological creatures. He is depicted with four arms, each carrying an attribute distinct to his identity. For example, in his upper left hand, Vishnu holds Sudarshana Chakra, his discus that he uses to conquer demons and other evil forces.

Another weapon the god uses for this purpose is a mace (gada) shown here in his upper right hand. Vishnu also carries a conch shell, shown in this sculpture in his lower left hand. Typically, the deity also holds a lotus flower, but here, his lower right hand forms the varadamudra or “gesture of charity”. His iconic lotus takes the form of the halo surrounding his head, with the light emanating in the form of petals. At the center of Vishnu’s chest is one of the 14 divine jewels (ratnas) known as Kaustubha. It represents pure consciousness, and its power is so brilliant, only Vishnu can handle it.

One of the most notable aspects of Vishnu is his 10 incarnations (avatars), which he adopts in order to descend to earth and vanquish whatever evil, chaos, and destructive forces threatens it and the overall balance of the cosmos. These manifestations include, in order of appearance: Matsya, the fish; Kurma, the turtle; Varaha, the boar; Narasimha, the half man, half lion; Vamana, the dwarf; Parashurama, the warrior with an axe; Rama, the protagonist of the epic, the Ramayana; Krishna a central figure in the epic, the Mahabharata, and religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavata Gita; Buddha; and Kalki, the rider on the white horse, who is Vishnu final avatar that has yet to manifest. Vishnu’s incarnations, especially Rama and Krishna, are popularly worshipped in Hinduism as deities.

There are several representations of Krishna in WAM’s collection. One that could be found in both painting and sculpture form is based on a legend from the Bhagavata Purana. When Krishna was a youth, he went into the Yamuna River to rescue his ball. He encountered, Kaliya, a poisonous snake (naga) with 110 hoods. The serpent wrapped his body around Krishna, but the deity expanded his body, causing Kaliya to release him. Then, Krishna assumed the weight of the universe and danced on the naga’s hoods, beating time with his feet. Kaliya’s wives begged Krishna to show mercy for their dying husband. Although Krishna could have vanquished Kaliya, he showed the creature mercy and pardoned him.

Fig. 3a: Krishna Quells the Serpent Kaliya, India, Orissa, 19th-20th century,
tempera on cotton; Gift from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, 2002.364

Fig. 3b: Krishna Quells the Serpent Kaliya, India,
18th-9th century, bronze and copper; 2004.221

Both painting (Fig. 3a) and sculpture (Fig. 3b) show Krishna dancing on top of the Kaliya’s many hoods, denoting the moment of complete control and mastery of the serpent. In the painting, Krishna is shown with his iconic blue skin and his flute, an important attribute associated with him, surrounded by Kaliya’s wives.

Fig. 4: Seated Ganesha, India, Gupta period, 7th-8th century,
sandstone; Gift of Mr. Alexander H. Bullock, 1949.56


Ganesh is the son of Shiva and his consort, Parvati, the goddess of fertility, love, marriage, children, and an aspect of the Divine Energy (Shakti). One of the most popular and beloved of all Hindu deities, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and the god of fortune and success. At the beginning of any new enterprise, he is traditionally prayed to, and his image is often placed over the doorways and entrances.

There are many legends that surround how the deity has his most distinctive feature—the elephant head. The most popular being that, Parvati was preparing a bath and did not want to be disturbed, so she had her little son, Ganesha, guard the door. Shiva, after being away for years (the reasons include war or deep meditation), returned home and wanted to see Parvati, but was stopped by the boy. Shiva became enraged by the audacity of this stranger and cut Ganesha’s head off. When Parvati saw what Shiva had done, the powerful goddess threatened to destroy all of Creation unless Shiva revived him. The god agreed and gave Ganesha the head of the first creature encountered—which was an elephant. The animal symbolizes Ganesha’s immense strength and his deep spiritual wisdom.

In this sculpture, Ganesha is shown with several iconic attributes. In his lower left hand, he holds a bowl of modaka, a type of sweet that the deity is very partial to. The modaka also represents the joys of life as well as the liberation from the cycle of birth and death, to which all Hindus believe they are bound to. In his upper right hand, he carries an axe, representing the cutting of attachments and the removal of obstacles in one’s path. Due to damage, it is difficult to see, but his lower right palm is facing outward in the abhya mudra, or “gesture of protection”. At his feet, is his vehicle (vahana), a small mouse.

Fig. 5: Kartikeya, India, probably Andhra Pradesh,
12th century, granite; Museum Purchase, 1923.22


Kartikeya is also the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is the god of war, and is also known as Skanda, Kumara, Murugan, and Subramanayan. Typically, he is depicted as a youthful warrior with his vahana, a peacock named Paravani, as seen here. In sculpture form, Kartikeya is commonly shown in the round, with either one or six heads. There are a few interpretations for the latter; one is that they collectively represent the six stars of the Pleiades cluster that took the form of six mothers to care for him in his infancy, and the other is that he assumed a form of six heads to give him the ability to see in multiple directions when at war.

Since WAM’s example is not free-standing, it depicts the deity with only three heads. Like other representations, he is shown here with twelve arms, all holding up weapons. For example, in his top left hand, he holds a thunderbolt (vajra). The weapons not only denote the list mentioned in the first paragraph, but also are a reference to this status as the god of war. Paravani carries a serpent in its mouth, symbolizing one’s power over ego and desire.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
    May 15, 2020

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Transforming a Scarlet Letter into a Transcendent Emblem of Pride

“What we're doing changes people's conception about who can make art, how art is made, who can learn and what's possible, because a lot of these kids had been written off by the school system. This is our revenge.”1

In 1981, principal George Gallego of Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx recruited artist and educator Tim Rollins (1955-2017) to develop an art curriculum for students classified as emotionally or academically “at risk.” Frustrated at the limitations in the classroom, Rollins formed an after-school program, Arts and Knowledge Workshop, where he honed his pedagogy. Together Rollins and his students, who named themselves K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), engaged in a process called “jammin’” where they would read literature aloud as other students would draw and paint.

WAM docent Mary Dowling explains the significance of The Scarlet Letter VI during a gallery 
tour. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (founded 1982), The Scarlet Letter VI, 1993, oil and acrylic on 
book pages mounted on canvas, Gift of Rosalie T. Rose in memory of Sidney Rose, 2012.94

In one instance, Rollins read from George Orwell’s 1984 and a student asked if he could draw on a page from the book.2 After this “eureka moment,” Rollins and K.O.S. would tear up the book being read, lay out the pages in a grid formation glued to a canvas, and place the artwork directly on this layout.3 The subsequent images reflected the students’ lived experiences of poverty, prejudice, and isolation.

While Rollins sometimes selected the text, in other instances it was an act of fate. A student once came into the workshop protesting his dismay after being assigned Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter for a school project. Rollins countered, arguing, “Oh, but The Scarlet Letter is one of the great books,” despite, many years later, admitting that he had never actually read the novel.4

After quickly reading the text, Rollins realized that his students’ experiences in the South Bronx resonated with the 19th-century novel about Hester Prynne set in Puritan New England. The Scarlet Letter VI from 1993 exemplifies the collaborative creative process between K.O.S. and Rollins. Students began by painting over pages from The Scarlet Letter with their own versions of Hester Prynne’s red letter “A.” In the novel, Hester is forced to wear the red letter as punishment for adultery. Following a discussion of the text, the students collectively worked to develop a statement based on their thematic variations of the red “A.” These were then painted over cut-out pages of the book laid out in a grid and glued to a canvas.

Seven variants of the red letter represent the students’ own stylistic interpretation—from graffiti forms to medieval historiated initials. Together, these variant motifs form a commentary on dignity despite social stigmatization. Rollins explained, “Just as Hester is wrongly condemned to a life of poverty and silence, so is the South Bronx and too many of its inhabitants. The kids are really into signifying and identity. This is the major impetus behind graffiti—this verifying of an identity in a hostile environment. And so, our Scarlet Letter is about taking an unjust stigma and turning it into a transcendent emblem of pride."

In 1986, Rollins and K.O.S. had their first gallery exhibition. This was a major turning point to distinguish themselves from other student-teacher collaborations by demanding that their work be seen as fine art.

In the early 1990s Rollins began to expand to other cities nationally and internationally, developing workshops with local students. Even as membership in the group changes as students graduate or move on, many of the original K.O.S. remain involved.

Have you ever had a teacher that went above and beyond? What different did they make for you in your life?

Learn more here about how Tim Rollins legacy as an artist, teacher, and activist is being continued through K.O.S. today.

—Paul Steen, WAM docent
    Edited by Erin-Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art
    May 12, 2020

1 https://www.xavierhufkens.com/artists/tim-rollins-and-kos
2 Tim Rollins, “How Do You Get to Prospect Avenue?” in Alice Wexler, ed., Art Education Beyond the Classroom: Pondering the Outsider and Other Sites of Learning (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 40.
3 Ibid.
4 “Conversation with Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” from Nicholas Paley, Finding Art’s Place: Experiments in Contemporary Education and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995), 42.

Friday, May 8, 2020

What is “Islamic Art”?

The term “Islamic art” is a western and modern concept, created by art historians in the 19th century to categorize and study the material first produced under the Islamic peoples that emerged from Arabia in the 7th century. However, today, “Islamic art” encompasses so much more than what it did in the 19th century, representing works of art from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia over 1,400 years. So, what makes a work of art “Islamic”? In this WAM Update, we will look at a few factors.

Fig. 1 Flowering Plant Beside a Pond, Iran,
Safavid period, 17th century; cut silk, voided satin
velvet, with brocading. Museum Purchase, 1938.2

1. Although there are Muslim monuments and objects such as mosques and decorated Qur’ans, respectively, a vast portion of Islamic art has little, if anything, to do with the Islamic faith. There are many examples of secular works, such as textiles, ceramics, and illustrated manuscripts. Above is an example of a textile produced in a royal workshop under the Safavid Persian ruler Shah ‘Abbas I
(r. 1588-1629). It features a repeat pattern of a flowering plant at the edge of a swirling pond. The lavish work, with its background comprised of gold-wrapped threads, would have been used to either decorate an interior space of a palace or fashioned into a garment.

Fig. 2 Basawan, “Birth of Ghazan Khan”, folio from a copy of
 the Jam’i al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, India, Mughal period,
 ca. 1596; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper. 
Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.12

2. “Islamic art” refers to works not only created by Muslim artists, craftsmen, and architects, for Muslim patrons, but also works of art made by non-Muslims for Muslim patrons. For example, Hindu artists were employed in the royal ateliers of the Mughal emperors, who comprised the greatest Muslim dynasty in South Asia. The work above is a folio from an illustrated copy of the Jami’ al-tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid al-Din, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) in the late 16th century. The painting was executed by Hindu artist Baswan, one of Akbar’s two most esteemed Indian masters. Baswan’s work is characterized by brilliant colors, well-rounded figures with flamboyant gestures, and compositions that explore the effects of depth and space.

3. “Islamic art” also concerns works of art created by Muslims and non-Muslims for non-Muslims. “Islamic” in the term “Islamic art” cannot completely reflect the Muslim faith; it is not comparable to “Christian” or “Judaic” in the terms “Christian art” or “Judaic art” respectively. For instance, there are examples of Christian Islamic art, such as a 9th lectionary, or a collection of scriptures, housed at the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, written in Arabic.

4. “Islamic art” is different from, for example, Chinese art, because it is not bound to a single place. Islamic empires and dynasties reflect great geographic and regional diversity and controlled territory from Spain to western China at various points in history.

5. “Islamic art” is not a monolithic style or movement, like Renaissance art or Baroque art. It fluctuated with the rise and fall of Muslim empires and dynasties across large geographic areas for nearly 1,400 years and was constantly changing shape.

To put points 4 and 5 into perspective: in 500 CE, Cordoba and Granada in Spain, and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, probably had very little contact. However, by 661 CE, they belonged to the Umayyad Empire (661-750). By 1236, Cordoba was part of the Catholic Kingdom of Castile, and Granada part of the Islamic Nasrid dynasty (1232-1492), despite being only 124 miles apart. Samarkand, by this time, was under Mongol rule.

The evolution of Muslim empires and dynasties allowed for a symbiosis between local and pre-existing artistic traditions and pan-Islamic modes of artistic behavior and expression, resulting in different forms of Islamic art. Below are a few examples from the Islamic empires of the Ottomans of Turkey (Fig. 3a), the Safavids of Iran (Fig. 3b), and the Mughals of India (Fig. 3c). Although all three illustrations were contemporaneously produced, one can see the difference in the execution of the figures. Safavid Persian paintings commonly show figures with Central Asian features, such as round faces, almond-shaped eyes, and fair skin, while Mughal Indian ones depict figures with physical features indigenous to the region.

Fig. 3a: “Bayezid I, ‘The Thunderbolt’, Routs the Crusaders at the Battle of
Nicopolis”, folio from a copy of the Hunernama Sayyid Luqman, Turkey,
Ottoman period, 1584, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper;
Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.13

Fig. 3b: Muhammad Qasim, Young Woman in a Landscape, Holding a Wine 
Bottle and Cup, Iran, probably Mashhad, Safavid period, 17th century, 
opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.14.

Fig. 3c: Portrait of a Nobleman, India, Mughal period, ca. 1630-40,
opaque watercolor, ink, gold, on paper; Bequest of Charles B. Cohn
in Memory of Stuart P. Anderson.

With these factors in mind, what then has been a far more common and more recognized interpretation of the term “Islamic art” is that it refers to a culture or civilization in which the majority of the population, or at least the ruling body, practice the Islamic faith. Yet, many art historians of this field are still unsatisfied with this definition, and thus it is still being developed as we try to further understand this genre. The field of Islamic art history is only about 200 years old, which is relatively young when one considers how long other genres, like Renaissance art, have been studied and analyzed.

In addition, Islamic art grew from western perspectives, especially that of Orientalism. Currently, the field is experiencing a period of self-reflection and revision, which is impacting how museums are approaching the galleries and displays of these artworks. However, while the field continues to evolve, we can continue to admire and appreciate the dynamism, beauty, and depth that it brings.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art

May 8, 2020

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

A Mini-Tour of Ancient South and Central American Art Explores Unique Objects

In 1943, Worcester Art Museum director Charles H. Sawyer opened the first gallery devoted to pre-contact art of the Americas (commonly referred to as pre-Colombian) at the Museum, making it a leader in the exhibition of these objects as works of art rather than as anthropological or archaeological specimens. A curator for this collection, Kester D. Jewell, was appointed several years later in 1946 and continued to grow the collection during his 26-year career at the Museum. Here are three highlights from this incredible collection, each of which reveals a unique aspect of the lives and cultures across ancient South and Central America. We hope you enjoy this mini-tour while our gallery remains closed to the public.

Nazca, Southern Peru, Bird Vessel, 100-500 CE, painted ceramic.
 Anonymous Gift in memory of John M. Slaughter, 1960.20

Our first stop is a pottery vessel in the shape of a bird, made by the Nazca, an agrarian civilization that flourished on the southern coast of Peru from 100 BCE to 800 CE. There was no written language, and designs on pottery vessels were an important means of communicating shared ideas and religious practices. The Nazca believed in powerful nature spirits who were thought to control most aspects of life. They visualized these spirits in the form of mythical beings, creatures having a combination of human and animal/bird/fish characteristics, and painted them onto their pottery.

How was this item made? The pottery wheel was unknown then. Vessels like these were thinned and smoothed by hand or using a flat stone. Because they were thin-walled, they could be made in a variety of shapes and then painted with mineral pigments. The Nazca would apply multicolored slips to achieve polychrome effects before the vessels were fired, whereas other cultures painted the vessels after firing. Painters probably used a turntable for manual slow turning during the decoration process.

Geometrics are a favored design element of the Nazca, who employed both abstract and representational images, strong colors, and bold decorative designs. The black and white checkerboard pattern draws the eye immediately to the bird’s breast, indicating it is an important part. In addition, its wing feathers are painted with black and white geometric markings. It is interesting to note that woodpeckers and flickers—birds with similar markings—are found in the Andes Mountains in Peru.

Nayarit, Mexico (West Mexico), Model of a Ballgame, 200 BCE-500 CE, ceramic.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Aldus Chapin Higgins, 1947.25

Next, let’s journey to ancient Central America. The ritual ball game depicted in this ceramic model was played throughout Mexico, Central American and northern South America from 1200 BCE until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. (In 1585, the Spanish outlawed games.) Two teams played in a stone court, which consisted of two parallel constructions with a narrow, relatively short playing alley in between. The game was played with a rubber ball (8 to 9 lbs., as compared to today’s regulation basketball, 22 oz.) by players wearing protective pads on their hips and knees. Players did not use their hands, and the object of the game was to score points by moving the ball past a marker.

In cultures such as the Classic Maya (250–900 CE), the game was a formal ritual with cosmological significance involving death and human sacrifice. Scholars are not sure of precise meanings of the game, but suggest that the ball represents the sun and the court the cosmos. After weakened prisoners were forced to play to the death, rulers reconfirmed their own prominent role among their people. The games also were played on key religious festivals, and sometimes just as a regular sporting event.

Note the variety of postures and the many different facial expressions formed by the clay. This dynamic scene, from Nayarit in western Mexico, is part of an artistic tradition of ceramic figures and clay scenes that were placed in deep shaft tombs as funerary offerings. The lively rendition here suggests simply a sporting event, rather than a formal ritual.

Zapotec, Urn with a Human Figure, 300 BCE-200 CE, ceramic
 with deposit of vermillion. Gift of Mrs. Aldus Chapin Higgins,
 Mr. & Mrs. Ernest Angell, and Mr. & Mrs. Milton P. Higgins
in memory of Aldus Chapin Higgins, 1961.37

The last stop on our tour is this colorful urn, a product of the Zapotec people, also known as the Cloud People, who lived in the Oaxaca area of Mexico (the southern highlands of Central Mesoamerica) from 500 BCE to 900 CE. The Zapotec developed the oldest writing system in Mesoamerica, and perfected the computation of time. The main goal of art, among the Mayas, Zapotecs, and Aztecs, was the representation of deities and the creation of symbolic signs that serve to interpret myth.

Funerary urns, of which this is an example, did not contain the ashes of the deceased; in fact, they usually contained nothing. They were, however, placed in graves and decorated with icons and images of “protector deities,” which were companions of the deceased on his dangerous journey toward the “lower world.” Only high-ranking individuals were worthy of this type of burial and the urns had a ceremonial and votive function. These urns, along with food and drink, accompanied the body when it was finally inhumed.

This urn is made of low-fired clay (fired at a low-temperature to avoid cracking) with vermillion color to accent the upper part of the sculpture. The figure depicted on the urn indicates the rank of the deceased. The crossed hands radiate a sense of peace and the elaborate headdress is a sign of high status. His large earspools are insignia of only the most respected and most powerful individuals. There also is a small jaguar head on the top of the headdress, which represented power, ferocity, and valor in most Mesoamerican cultures. One legend stated that humans were descended from trees and jaguars.

We hope you have enjoyed this WAM Update tour. Of course, these three objects are only a taste of the pre-contact collection at WAM; once we reopen to the public, we hope that you pay a special visit to see these incredible artworks in person, alongside other highlights of the collection.

—Edited by Olivia Kiers, Curatorial Assistant, and featuring the research of WAM docents Tammy Butler, Sandy Congdon, and Marcia Patten

May 5, 2020

Friday, May 1, 2020

When Museum Professionals Work from Home

In the museum world, registrars and collections professionals have a certain reputation: We obsess over temperature and relative humidity, we cringe at suggestions of food in the galleries, and we follow the rules. We are organized, efficient, and, yes, we can be a little strict.

But there is a method to our madness: We are like this because it is our job to care for the Museum’s collection. This includes helping to keep WAM’s art objects physically safe, and tracking their locations around the building and around the world. It involves a lot of spreadsheets.

Ali Rosenberg, WAM's Assistant Registrar,
works at her #MuseumFromHome office.

Like collections professionals around the globe, WAM’s registrars now find ourselves doing the bulk of this work from home. We have left the comfort of our offices—where our desk supplies are neatly arranged at 90-degree angles and large-scale printouts of our beautiful spreadsheets are only a click away—and transitioned to the relative chaos of the outside world.

But all this type-A energy must go somewhere, and in my case, it’s gone to the obsessive museum-izing of my apartment.

It started out simple enough: It turns out, when you work from home, you become much more aware of just how much natural sunlight falls on your favorite family photographs in the midafternoon. For those of you who don’t work with obscure units of illumination, a “foot-candle” is a standard unit we use to measure the amount of light on an object. For reference, a frequent conservation-approved light level for the display of photographs is five foot-candles. Natural sunlight can range from hundreds to thousands of foot-candles.

You can see the severity of the situation. However, after a quick rearrangement of the threatened objects and a strategic placement of the curtains, all seemed well. But that was only the beginning.

The longer I work from home, the more I see my home for what it is: a collections management catastrophe.

Next came the climate. I have been spoiled at work by museum-quality climate control, and, to be frank, my apartment’s HVAC system just doesn’t measure up. My one portable humidifier is no match for the hot, dry air that has been emanating from the baseboards all winter, and spending nearly 24 hours a day at home with chapped lips is enough to make anyone take action. Only by implementing a careful regimen of thermostat-tweaking and letting the laundry air-dry in the living room have I begun to get this climate under control.

And that is not even the worst of it. My husband, a fellow museum professional trapped at home, has been working on a physics demonstration involving stacks of books. That’s all well and good, except that our once pristinely organized bookshelves have been pilfered and plundered, and stacks of random books now litter the apartment. As someone whose job it is to keep track of objects, I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that this is an absolute nightmare. How could anyone calmly do database work at the kitchen table when your home has descended into anarchy?

A physics demonstration of a stack of books.

Thankfully, he’s not a total monster. When two museum professionals share a small apartment, you’re going to get a few odd quirks. Ours is an elaborate personal database cataloguing our extensive library, complete with titles, cover images, publishing information, read counts, and Library of Congress numbers (how else are you supposed to know what order they go in on your shelves?). As he brazenly pulls books off shelves without so much as an Object Movement Card, I can trust Bookpedia, a software program that lets users catalog their personal libraries, to tell us how to put them back.

Bookpedia, a software program that lets users catalog their personal
libraries, helps Ali keep track of books "lent out" to create the stacks.

And so, along with my colleagues at WAM and around the world, I am adjusting to life outside the Museum’s walls, and I am thankful for all those who are working on-site in essential positions so that I can stay in the safety of my home—and here’s to bringing a little piece of my Museum life home with me.

— Ali Rosenberg
     Assistant Registrar
    May 1, 2020

P.S. If you and your family miss visiting your favorite museums in person, check out these ideas for museum-izing your own home.

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