Date: 1354–55 AD
From: Iran, Isfahan
Medium: Mosaic of polychrome-glazed cut tiles on stonepaste body; set into mortar
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States
The Mihrab found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a prayer niche created in 1354 AD shortly after the collapse of the Ilkhanid dynasty, as rival Injuids and Muzaffarid leaders battled for control of the region. The piece was originally removed from the Madrasa Imami in the late 1920s. It was then skillfully restored, especially around the calligraphy in the central section, and briefly stored first at the University of Pennsylvania, then London, and finally shown at the exhibition of Persian art at Burlington House in 1931. This mihrab is now located in New York City, purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1939 and is considered to be one of the cornerstones of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic Collection. The mihrab, was originally used to indicate the direction of prayer for Muslim prayer in the qibla wall of the theological school in Isfahan, now known as the the Madrasa Imami. While it would have been located in the prayer space of the madrasa, mihrabs are most commonly found in mosques. The mihrab is a mosaic composed of cut and glazed tiles joined into arabesque patterns and calligraphic inscriptions. The pointed arch of the mihrab is outlined by a band of white with blue kufic script below a large overlapping vine design. Geometric patterns fill the interior of the niche and serve to emphasize its depth. These designs are largely contrasting light and dark shades of blue with milky white, yellow, and dark green and aim the eye to the focal center inscription of the piece. The inscription around the exterior of the mihrab contains the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad from the Quran 9:18-22 in kufic script. While the interior calligraphy reads, “The Prophet (may blessings and peace be upon him) said: The mosque is the abode of every believer”. This inclusion of Islamic scripture further emphasizes the place of the mihrab as one of high importance in the Muslim faith.
This mihrab, or prayer niche, is an type of wall decoration found in Mosques used to indicate the direction of Mecca for prayer. This particular mihrab is a mosaic composed of cut glazed tiles found in Iran, Isfahan. The cut glazed tiles have a predominantly blue color palette, with strong turquoise borders with white winding and overlapping vine-like decor running throughout the piece. Small tiles of a dark orange and brown color accent the piece, especially within the niche. The niche itself is tall and narrow and continues into a pointed arch. The indentation is set in a large rectangle, framed by a thick band of white Arabic calligraphy from 9:18-22 of the Qu’ran on a deep blue background. At the top two corners of this thick band are an intricate star or flower motif, containing all of the blue, white, green and orange colors. A frame about half the width of this band offsets the indentation from its surrounding tiles with its reverse, blue Arabic calligraphy on a white background. Both of these frames are boarded by much thinner and simpler bands of blue, turquoise and white geometric patterns. These patterns within the thinner bands seem to move linearly within their borders, moving the eye from one area to another in the mihrab. The vines between the borders and the indentation in the rectangle combine to form white and blue overlapping star or flower-like repeating patterns. These patterns swirl around the indentation, moving the eye toward the deepest area of the niche.
Within the curved top of the niche a hexagonal motif is repeated, containing a higher concentration of darker blues and a reduction of white within the hexagons when compared to the surrounding areas. This contrast makes the viewer highly aware of this depth in the niche, alluding to its importance within the mosque and Islamic faith. Below, another thin offsetting band, which is composed of green, orange and blue triangles mounted on a darker blue background and framed by two white lines, lies a highly complex pattern of radiating shapes. These shapes can be interpreted as blue and green x’s alternating with white and green diamond-like forms or alternating white and green diamond like forms surrounded by rounded green and blue forms. Each form is identically composed of scalloped, curving lines. In the center of this pattern lies a line of Arabic, written in thuluth script, outlined with the same thin orange, blue and green border as offsets the top of the indentation from the elongated portion. This inscription reads, “The Prophet (may blessings and peace be upon him) said: The mosque is the abode of every believer”. The position of this rectangle containing the calligraphy allows it to be fully out of the shadow cast on the top of the niche, therefore naturally highlighting the script and its high importance. This highlight is made further noticeable by the use multiple thin white borders as well as white text which in states the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad in kufic script. Therefore, the entirety of the mihrab seems to be framing and leading the eye to this message.