Marianna Shreve Simpson



Why My Name is Red: “Ahmar,” “Surkh” and “Kirmizi” in the History of Islamic Art

In 1614, Philip III, ruler of Hapsburg Iberia, sent ‘Abbas I, ruler of Safavid Iran, a gift of several hundred luxury items, including vessels and furniture fashioned of silver and gold, worth altogether over 32,000 ducats. Far more valuable than the precious metal objects, however, were the five barrels of cochineal, the brilliant red dye stuff made from the dried and crushed shells of insects found on the branches of the prickly pear cactus in the highlands of Mexico. While Shah ‘Abbas may have been impressed by the value and distant origin of the cochineal, the color itself was hardly a novelty. Indeed, by his day red in various hues (crimson, scarlet, rose, ruby, etc, etc.) had been a ubiquitous color in the palette of artists and artisans of all media in Iran and throughout the Islamic world for centuries. This paper will explore the sources and shades of red through a selection of objects, including ceramics, textiles and manuscripts, from the early, medieval and early modern periods of Islamic art with the goal of better understanding the color’s varied “charge” (i.e., its meanings, associations and values) within Islamic civilization as a whole.

MARIANNA SHREVE SIMPSON (Ph.D., Harvard University, 1978), an independent scholar, has published, taught and lectured widely on Islamic art in general and the arts of the book in particular. She has worked at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art (associate dean, 1980–92); Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (curator of Islamic Near Eastern art, 1992–95) and Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (director of curatorial affairs and curator of Islamic art, 1995–2000). Over the years Simpson also has taught as a visiting faculty member at: UCLA; Georgetown; Princeton; Johns Hopkins; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the Maryland Institute College of Art; University of Pennsylvania, and the Bard Graduate Center, New York. Recent awards have included: a Senior Fellowship, CASVA, National Gallery of Art; a Collaborative Research Award, Getty Grant Program; a Senior Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities; and membership, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She currently serves as president-elect of the Historians of Islamic Art Association, and began a two-year term as president in February 2010.

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