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The Eyes and the Heart
Bridges: Cross-Cultural Conversations

The Eyes and the Heart

The Eyes and the Heart

Leaf with Calligraphic Composition in Gold Leaf Turkey, 19th century. Gold on chestnut leaf H. 13.5 cm × W. 28 cm AKM538

By Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis
May 12th, 2021

An old Arab proverb says: 
’عينك ميزانك وقلبك الخبير‘ ‘Your eye is your measure and your heart is your expert.’

In today’s busy, preoccupied and often absent-minded world, we no longer take the time to reflect on anything our eyes take in. Too often, we make up our minds based on first impressions, and we no longer probe further to understand and judge better what lies beneath a shiny surface. This month’s featured object invites us to stop for a while and do exactly that. It

gives us an opportunity to truly engage both our eyes and our hearts, and spend some time contemplating the deeper meaning of what we see. What draws the eyes first is a spectacular calligraphic composition exquisitely rendered in gold. Looking closer, the writing reveals itself to be a prayer from the Qur’an, "And say, ‘Lord grant me a good entrance and a goodly exit, and sustain me with Your power" (Sura 17, Al-Isra’ (The Night Journey), verse 80), with its boat-shaped design perhaps referring to the hope for a smooth passage through life. But how

The Eyes and the Heart

safe might that passage really be, given the delicate matter sustaining the boat? Only now do we really come to realize that the bold gold inscription floats —as it were — on the breathtakingly fragile skeleton of a chestnut leaf. How is that even possible? 

In fact, achieving this artistic effect was fiendishly complicated: the calligrapher first applied the inscription to the chestnut leaf before sealing the writing on both sides with a wax barrier. He then soaked the leaf in an alkaline solution until only its skeleton remained, leaving the inscription intact to be covered with gold leaf. Just imagine for a moment how carefully the artist’s hand must have 

moved to apply the gilding smoothly and without damage! Undoubtedly, much thought and effort went into the outer appearance and inner meaning of this beautiful artwork, suggesting that God and His world not only rise above the fragility and transience of the physical world, but provide the believer with a safe passage in the face of a fragile, transient human existence. 

Written by Special Guest Contributor: Dr. Ulrike Al-Khamis, Director and CEO at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto. In each issue, we feature a special treasure from the Aga Khan Museum, one that tells a story, captures a moment and inspires conversation.

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