One of the great lunch-hour treats in Washington is the mini-exhibit of Turkish art at the Freer Gallery, just 30 items lining a hall -- delicious and free.
The show, which opened this week, calls attention to a monumental new Smithsonian book, associate curator Esin Atil's 386-page "Turkish Art," tracing the history of an often-underrated body of court art that is virtually a living chronicle of trade and diplomatic traffic in the ancient world from China to Egypt.
To most of us, Turkish art means filigreed calligraphy, incredibly delicate floral patterns. There is plenty of this already at the Freer -- whose collection rivals the Metropolitan's as the best in America -- but the new show brings some real gems to our attention: stunning blue-white platters whose intricate decorations never get in their own way, never seem busy or cluttered, but dance before our eyes, clean and cheerful and elegant. Some of these arabesques, by the way, conceal calligraphic code messages.
There is a charming portrait of a painter at work, a rarity in a culture where only the emperors' portraits were customary. There are 16th-century tiles, velvet for a 17th-century imperial kaftan, cunningly incised brass candlesticks, ink drawings, and gilded miniatures from the same Islamic court tradition that produced the 17th-century Mughal miniatures in India.
"Most of the great imperial works are still in Turkey," said Atil. "The Ottoman Empire collections were kept intact for centuries and didn't leave the country, unlike some others. It wasn't until the 19th century, with its interest in history, and the development of photography, that all this began to be known about generally."
It's a happy show, she said, a world at springtime, a fantasy of paradise.
One delightful miniature shows Abraham, that Old Testament world celebrity, being rescued from a fiery death by an angel. The angel, or peri, is supposed to be sexless of course, but is quite definitely a she. And wouldn't you know, it is she, the miracle-maker, who sits there listening politely while the great man she has just saved gives her a lecture.