The following is a guest post by Shangri La guide Stacy Pope.
As a tour guide at Shangri La, I feel lucky to spend so much time at such an exquisite place. The more I learn about the property and its vast collection of Islamic art, the more I love it—and that seems to be true for many of our visitors as well.
One of my favorite things at Shangri La is a colorful mosaic (48.93) located in the patio, or central courtyard. It is strikingly beautiful and grand, to be sure; it’s also a masterpiece of craftsmanship. But most of all, I enjoy observing visitors as I explain the inspiration for the mosaic’s design and the incredible amount of effort and skill its creation required. I watch as they gradually transform from passively appreciative to engaged, gathering around the mosaic’s gleaming façade for closer study and lingering even as we move toward the living room.
Handcrafted 75 years ago in Isfahan, Iran, the mosaic is young in comparison to many of Shangri La’s centuries-old works of art. The fact that it perfectly fits the patio’s protruding south wall—which is 11 feet wide and 20 feet tall—is no accident; Doris Duke and her husband, James Cromwell, commissioned the mosaic with this very spot in mind.
In 1938, as construction on Shangri La neared completion, the couple traveled through Iran (as well as Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt) for artistic inspiration and to purchase pieces for their new home. In Isfahan, they were particularly impressed with the early-seventeenth-century structures framing Naqsh-e Jahan Square (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site), including several ornate palaces and the astounding Masjid-i Shah, or Shah Mosque. Archives at Shangri La and at Duke University contain Mr. Cromwell’s photographs and film footage documenting its intricately patterned portal panels. These panels, rich in floral and geometric designs and flanked by calligraphic cartouches, became the models for Shangri La’s patio mosaic design.
Work soon began on the Cromwells’ commission—but the process would be long and arduous. First, batches of stonepaste tiles were glazed in cobalt, turquoise, kelly green, mustard yellow, brown, brick red, white and black; then, each batch was fired individually, as each color demanded a unique firing temperature for maximum glaze brilliance.
Then the cutting of the tiles began. Mosaics are something like jigsaw puzzles, requiring many small pieces that fit together to make one larger image. The more complicated the design and color scheme, the more pieces it can take. The patio mosaic called for approximately 17,000 pieces—each cut by hand into tiny circles, asymmetrical squiggles, half moons and every other shape imaginable. When the cut tiles were complete, each had to be placed upside down into the pattern. Plaster was then poured, bonding the pieces together into one work of art.
Then the Cromwells faced the problem of getting the mosaic all the way from Iran to Hawai‘i—in the midst of World War II. In 1940 it finally arrived, having traveled eastward by ship to New York before backtracking to Honolulu.
The finished mosaic features vibrant floral arabesques, interlocking leafy vines and four cartouches containing Koranic inscriptions that honor Allah and praise the god-fearing mortal. At its crown, a cryptic geometric design encodes the repeating message “May it be blessed” in Kufic script. The entire work is framed in serpentine vines.
What an artistic achievement—and what magnificence the mosaic adds to Shangri La.
About the Guest Author: Raised just down the road from Shangri La, Stacy Pope has worked as an interpretive guide at the museum since 2011. She is also a published travel writer and magazine editor.