The phrase “the sea in a jug” (بحر در کوزه, bahr dar koozeh) appears in the first book of the Masnavi, the great multivolume work of the Persian poet, mystic, and theologian Rumi (1207–1275). The meaning of this saying has been debated for centuries. In the context of this exhibition of art from the Islamic world, it is intended to represent the idea that a subset of things—in this case a group of artworks—can contribute to our understanding of a much larger cultural field. Colby student Alaleh Naderi ’21, who proposed this title based on her reading of a major Rumi scholar, noted that the “largeness of the sea cannot fit into a jug, but the effort to store one day’s portion of water can help take away the thirst.”

Islamic art designates secular and religious art made by both Muslims and non-Muslims living within territories defined or influenced by Islam. The paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ornamental objects included here date from the thirteenth to the twentieth century and were made in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and India. Islamic art is often characterized by the absence of figures and proliferation of calligraphic, geometric, and abstract floral patterns. However, figurative art has flourished in secular contexts, especially in arts of the court and in situations of cultural exchange.

Initiating opportunities for museum-based curricular study of Islamic and later Indian art at Colby College, this exhibition was organized in collaboration with Marta Ameri, Assistant Professor in the Art Department, and students in her course “Art of the Islamic Book.” Offered on loan to this program are works acquired by the American curator, scholar, and collector Stuart Cary Welch; additional loans have been generously provided by the Harvard Art Museums, where Welch worked for more than four decades. A selection of Indian paintings from the Colby Museum’s collection is also on view.