SMALLER, MORE narrowly focused and with less of a sense of humor than the Baltimore Museum of Art's 1997 "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum" (a lavish smorgasbord of stuff that included a pair of silly-looking shoes designed by Vivienne Westwood), the National Gallery of Art's "Palace and Mosque: Islamic Art From the Victoria and Albert Museum" could not have come at a better time. Sent out from its home museum for an extended world tour while the V&A develops a new gallery in which to display items from its 10,000-object collection of Islamic art of the Middle East, this traveling show of 106 objects has a none-too-subtle PR subtext that is worth noting.
With significant financial support from Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, "Palace and Mosque" seems mainly to want to make one quiet but plain point among others. It's about tolerance, something that occasionally seems to be in short supply between the West and the Middle East these days.
To wit, one of the show's themes is that Islam is a religion known for its historically peaceful coexistence with Christianity and Judaism. This is illustrated by such artifacts as a Turkish plate from the 18th century made for an Armenian priest, and by a church vestment dating from the early 17th century depicting scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion. Made, obviously, for practitioners of a non-Muslim faith, such objects are, at least from the standpoint of this exhibition, culturally "Islamic" (in the sense that they were created for communities under Muslim rule).
This message is clear, and clearly meant as a kind of antidote to the news reports we've been hearing about violence against Western "infidels" -- and vice versa. Whether it will work to defuse tension, prejudice and misunderstanding, in either direction, is another matter.
It wouldn't be the first time, at any rate, that beauty has been placed in the service of cultural diplomacy.
And there's no short supply of beauty here. Drawn from two worlds -- the secular world of the palace and the somewhat more somber one of the mosque (with shrines and churches thrown in as a kind of goodwill gesture), the exhibition is visually splendid, if somewhat less ostentatious than many decorative arts shows, by virtue of its heavy emphasis on religious artifacts. Nevertheless, it debunks one commonly held myth about the Muslim prohibition against representations of the figure in art. While it's true that the vast majority of Islamic objects (and here I mean Islamic in the religious sense) involve mainly calligraphy and non-figurative design, "Palace and Mosque" makes a point that this taboo was far from hard and fast.
As with any show that's half devoted to courtly arts and half to faith, as much here is meant to advertise power, wealth and prestige as devotion. Carved ivories, rich textiles and, in a particularly stunning example of if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it, a 16th-century gold-inlaid steel sword belonging to Shah Tahmasp I of Iran are all basically status symbols. They're beautiful examples of craftsmanship and design, yet as with other shows of this sort, where the works of art exist to reinforce class distinctions, they're somewhat unsubtle reminders of inequality.
That's the flip side of beauty: It's often out of reach of the common man, except in museums.
A sense of luxury, then, is one of the things you're meant to take away from this show. In that regard, it's like the National Gallery of Art's recent "An American Vision: Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museum" or, before that, "Art Nouveau, 1890-1914." (The latter, incidentally, was also a project of the V&A).
The other thing you're meant to take away from the show (and, frankly, the more important of the two) also has to do with luxury, but only in the sense that bigotry is a luxury that none of us can afford.
PALACE AND MOSQUE: ISLAMIC ART FROM THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM -- Through Feb. 6 at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). www.nga.gov. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays from 11 to 6. Free.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
* Friday at noon -- Gallery talk (repeated Tuesday, Thursday, Aug. 9 and 11 at 1; Aug. 20, 25 and 31 at noon; Sept. 14, 16, 18 and 21 at noon; Oct. 6, 7, 27 and 28 at 2; and Oct. 12, 15, 16, 19 and 21 at noon).
* Oct. 3 and Nov. 20 from 2 to 5 -- Two-part lecture on "Artistic Exchange on the Mediterranean Rim: Islamic, Byzantine and European Art."
* Oct. 31 at 2 -- Author Rosamond E. Mack lectures on "Arts of Splendor: Islamic Luxury Goods in Renaissance Italy."
* Oct. 31 through mid-January -- Film series: "Cinema From the Lands of Abraham."
* Nov. 6 from 10 to 5 and Nov. 7 from 11 to 6 -- Family Weekend: "Explore Islamic Art," featuring performances and hands-on art activities.
* Nov. 21 at 6:30 -- Pianist Ariana Barkeshli plays music by Mussorgsky and Persian composers Hossein, Khaleghi and Mashayekhi.
* Jan. 23 at 6:30 -- Pianist Gulsin Onay plays music by Liszt, Elgar and Turkish composers Saygun and Durroglu-Demiriz.
Available Sunday through the run of the exhibition, a brochure and map will allow visitors to take a self-guided tour of additional artifacts from the museum's permanent collection that highlight cross-cultural interchange in a program called "Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World."