Calderwood Collection Celebrates Old Persia at Sackler

In a moment that decided the fate of nations, Siyavush and Afrasiyab—two characters in the Persian epic poem “The Shahnameh”—put aside their differences and embraced like brothers.

“This piece is one of my favorites,” says exhibit curator Mary McWilliams, while looking at a depiction of this scene in an illuminated manuscript now on display in the Sackler Museum.

“It is a moment of reconciliation, a moment of harmony between these ancient enemies. They really are choosing the more difficult right over the easier wrong,” McWilliams says.

The miniature painting is one of the centerpieces of “In Harmony: The Norma Jean Calderwood Collection of Islamic Art,” a new exhibit that presents art created in what scholars now call Greater Iran—an area of Persian cultural influence that stretched from modern day Iraq to Central Asia throughout the Middle Ages.

“In Harmony,” which opened on Monday and will remain on display until June 1, consists of the collection of Norma Jean Calderwood, a private art collector, curator, and former fine arts lecturer Boston College, who amassed an extensive array of Islamic art over the course of her life.


McWilliams says she aimed to display the works of art while still paying homage to the woman who collected them, such as by curating the collection based on Calderwood’s own interests and strategies.

“She gave a lot of public lectures and museum training at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,” McWilliams says. “I have mined those texts to try and understand her thinking.”

To make sense of the eclectic collection, McWilliams organized most of the works in chronological order by the date of production, while she grouped others in clusters to highlight certain themes.

One display case contains ceramics from different time periods that all use images of birds. Another wall explores the development of miniature paintings from Shiraz, Iran. The result highlights the similarity in content across different mediums while still exploring the evolution in taste and style throughout medieval Iranian history.

To provide additional information, the museum made use of Layar technology, an iOS and Android app, to make a guide specifically for this exhibit. Viewers can access supplementary digital materials by scanning an item in the exhibit using their mobile devices.

The exhibit was made possible by a 2002 donation from Calderwood’s husband, Stanford Calderwood, a businessman and arts patron shortly before they both passed away. McWilliams said that Stanford Calderwood donated the collection in the hopes of conveying “the full scope” of his wife’s lifetime achievement.

“He gave this with really only two conditions: that we name the collection after his wife, and that we publish the entire collection,” McWilliams says.

In a lecture to Boston College students given in 1994, Calderwood described Persian miniature painting as a complex art form that combined disparate elements to form a cohesive whole.

“The compositions are a combination of visual types, all united to form a harmony, with patterns of line and color covering the whole surface of the picture space,” Calderwood said.

Despite the tangible influence of their collector, McWilliams says the pieces themselves are ultimately the focus of the exhibition.

“One other condition that Stan Calderwood put on the gift was that the catalogue and the exhibition would not be about Norma Jean herself. He wanted it to be about the art,” she says.

—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at


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