"Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past" Now Open and in the Press!

By Rachel Herschman

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past opened here at ISAW on February 14, 2018 and has already received several wonderful reviews:

Wall Street Journal
Art Net
Art Daily
Times of Israel
Jerusalem Post
Cleveland Jewish News

This exhibition brings together an exceptional group of rare manuscripts that testify to the fertile relationship between medieval Islam and the classical world. With material ranging from lavishly illuminated romances, to eye-opening medical and scientific treatises, the exhibition provides an engrossing visual record of how, over the course of centuries, scholars, artists, doctors, scientists, and others in the Islamic world transformed Ancient Greek material for their own day.

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the Islamic version of the story of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). No single figure from Greco-Roman antiquity was more lauded by or deeply absorbed into Islamic tradition than that of Alexander the Great (or Iskandar). Romance and Reason presents approximately thirty illuminated versions of the earliest-known Persian accounts of the life of Iskandar: the Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Abu al-Qasim Firdausi between 977 and 1010 CE, and the Khamsa, or Five Poems, by Nizami Ganjavi, dating from the late 12th century CE. With a variety of exquisite illuminations, the manuscripts here were created over the course of five centuries. Together, they portray the evolution of Iskandar’s character and identity, showing him as warrior, king, seeker of truth, and more—reflecting growth and change in the Islamic world and the increasingly integral role that Iskandar played in its founding story.

Iskandar Attends the Dying Dara
Author: Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209); Copyist: Unknown; Language: Persian
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Folio: H. 25 cm; W. 15 cm
Iran, 17th century
Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Frank L. Babbott: 34.5996
(c) Brooklyn Museum

The second section of the exhibition is devoted to scientific and mathematical topics. Highlights of the exhibition’s especially rich assortment of medical materials include four 12th century manuscripts, all by different artists, illustrating vignettes from the five-volume De materia medica, written in the first century CE by the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius, as well as one of the most important medical works written by an Islamic scholar: The Canon of Medicine, by Persian physician, astronomer, and thinker Avicenna. 

Also on view are works illustrating how mathematicians in the Islamic world absorbed Greek mathematics—expanding, synthesizing, and refining the discipline—but also combined Euclidean geometry with other methods of solving numerical problems to create a new field of mathe­matical research: algebra. Additional, strikingly illustrated scientific manuscripts show the development of astronomy and astrology. 

Organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in partnership with the National Library of Israel, Romance and Reason explores such Islamic representations and adaptations of Classical figures and thought through works from the 11th through 18th centuries, created in Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey. 

The Canon of Medicine (Al-qanun fi al-tibb)
Folio 386 verso: Opening of the Fourth Book
Author: Avicenna (980–1034); Copyist: Timurid court workshop;
Language: Arabic
Ink and gold on paper
Folio: H. 25.5 cm; W. 16 cm
Iran, early 15th century
Courtesy, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health: MS A 53
 ISAW / Bruce M. White, photographer, 2017  


Closed Monday and Tuesday 
Wednesday - Sunday: 11am-6pm
Friday: 11am-8pm; free guided tour at 6 pm
Free admission