The Book of Omens
Traveler contributing editor Jim Conaway explores the latest exhibit from D.C.’s Sackler Gallery.
You don’t have to believe in divination to be transported by a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., “Falnama: The Book of Omens.”
Gorgeous pages from what could be described as royalty’s self-help manuals for fortune-telling helped Ottoman sultans and Persian shahs circa the late 16th century feel they could predict and influence the future. Imagine thumbing through two-dimensional but wildly evocative paintings of prophets with flaming nimbi and dreadful spotted demons holding lesser mortals in their claws, and believing that your life in some meaningful way depended upon it.
Brought together here for the first time, the Falnama is a triumph of curation and reveals the chanciness of human existence in those contentious times, as well as the belief that gods were both accessible and responsive. The degree of artistry is breath-taking: colors pop as if executed yesterday, and the drama unfolds in the Sackler’s appropriately hushed, almost sacred ambiance. Built underground so as not to intrude on the profile of the National Mall, the Sackler requires that you descend to the galleries and in the process shed layers of the present, almost literally dipping into the art.
My favorite page was “Imam Riza Saves the Sea People” (right) in which pathetic ordinary people wash around in a gray pool while a prophet deals summarily with one of those fiends. It isn’t a scene that necessarily makes you want to travel – what if the Iman Riza’s little lance breaks? – but it will provide you with a totally exotic vision of the human predicament. In the adjoining room the Falnaman vision of Hell (above) is equally fascinating. Many of these pages throw together zodiacal and shamanic figures with those better known from the Koran and the Old Testament. Familiar Biblical stories like Abraham’s are illustrated from a totally different perspective, revealing how much “east” and “west” have in common, religious and cultural influences bleeding together in a uniquely moving experience powerfully augmented by the setting.
Falnama: The Book of Omens is at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, National Mall, Washington, DC from October 24, 2009 – January 24, 2010.
Image Credits: Above; “Hell from the Ahmed I Falnama” Iran or Turkey, 1580s – 1590s Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. On loan from the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul. Below; “Imam Riza Saves the Sea People from a dispersed Falnama” Iran, Safavid period, mid 1550s- early 1560s. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. On loan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris
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