Adoration of the Magi

I am away for a couple of weeks, so will be posting little new material on Pandaemonium. I am taking the opportunity to publish some of those shorter pieces from my Observer column that I don’t normally post on Pandaemonium.  This short piece was published in the Observer on 8 July 2018 under the headline ‘Look at art for the deep connection between Europe and Islam’.

The Adoration of the Magi is an early 15th-century altarpiece painting by the Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano. Housed in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, it is considered by many art historians as Fabriano’s finest work and as the culmination of the International Gothic style of the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Look closely at figures of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, and you will notice something odd. Their halos feature Arabic script. That might seem sacrilege in a Christian religious painting. Yet as a new exhibition in Florence, at the Uffizi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, sets out to show, such cultural and religious cross-dressing was common at the time. Entitled ‘Islamic Art and Florence from the Medici to the 20th Century‘, the show explores ‘the knowledge, exchange, dialogue and mutual influence that existed between the arts of East and West’.

Embodied in the Renaissance view is certainly a sense of Islam as the other. But it is intertwined with curiosity, respect, even awe. There is a willingness, too, to reach beyond the otherness of Islam and to see the Muslim world not as demonic or exotic but as a variant of the European experience.

‘I believe that the more we know of each other culturally, the easier things are,’ suggests Giovanni Curatola, a curator of the Florence exhibition. That seems a pious hope. To transform contemporary sentiments about Muslims or migrants will require far more than an exhibition. Yet, at a time when many politicians present Islam as alien to the European experience, such shows are a useful reminder of how historically deeply intertwined are the worlds of Europe and Islam. As the Turkish novelist Elif Şhafak observed in an introduction to the 2015 exhibition, ‘The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art’, ‘the distance between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ has less to do with the world outside than with the world inside our minds’.


  1. Chris Slater

    Let’s not get carried away here – it’s just beautiful gibberish. “In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painters and sculptors often incorporated inscriptions into their work. Many of these were legible texts in Latin or other European languages, but sometimes painters reached east, borrowing the languages of the Holy Land. Arabic was especially popular, but there was one small problem: Prior to the 16th century, hardly any Europeans actually knew the language. The solution? Fake Arabic. Starting in the early 14th century, some Italian paintings feature a delicate, flowing script that at first glance appears to be Arabic. A closer look reveals that it’s actually a simulated script. The artists were seeking to reproduce the shape of Arabic without actually knowing what it was they were reproducing. They saw beautiful squiggles, so they painted beautiful squiggles. Art historians call this style of ornamentation pseudo-Arabic…”

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