The Louvre Abu Dhabi leaves you awestruck even before you’ve entered. Its massive silver-grey dome glistening among the tranquil aquamarine waters of the Arabian Gulf is a sight to behold. Under that spaceship-like dome—180 metres in diameter and perforated by multilayered latticework that lets sunlight filter, casting abstract patterns on the floor and the walls— you feel as though you have been transported to another realm altogether. A union of traditional Arabic design and modernism by architect Jean Nouvel, it serves as the perfect sanctuary for precious treasures.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a ‘universal museum’, in the words of Jean-François Charnier, the scientific and cultural director for Agence France-Muséums. And universal it is, stringing together stories and the history of humanity—from Neolithic villages to great empires, transcending civilisations, time and geographical boundaries. This celebration of globalisation through the ages begins right at the Grand Vestibule, the gateway to the 12 galleries where artefacts from different geographical regions are grouped to highlight their uncanny similarities. Surprisingly, it is the floor that first catches your eye. It is criss-crossed by the map of the UAE shoreline but the places marked reflect the origins of the exhibits—Spain, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, India—in scripts ranging from Chinese to Arabic and Devanagari, among others.
The artefacts seek to reveal mysteries of universality through common themes like motherhood, death and prayer. So you find an exquisite Indian ewer embellished in Italy dated 1640 juxtaposed with an ewer for Zamzam water from the Middle East dated 1750–1800. Similarly, gold funerary masks seek to answer questions like why different civilisations covered the faces of their dead with the precious metal.
The next gallery tells us stories of the Neolithic revolution, the birth of villages, farming and origins of ceramics. Particularly striking is a statue with two heads from ’Ain Ghazal in Jordan, dating back to 6500 BCE. It is a shock when you comprehend that the statue with the piercing black bitumen eyes looking back at you is around 8,000 years old.
Also grouped together are female figurines from regions as far apart as Mesopotamia, Ecuador and the Indus Valley from anywhere between 2700 BCE to 6000 BCE. Were they symbols of mother goddesses?
The third gallery is dedicated to great empires and god-like kings. Displaying remarkable similarities between Sumerian priest-kings and the pharaohs of Egypt, the statues here are spectacular. Rameses II is definitely the most photographed exhibit here.
The Roman Empire has a place of prominence, with busts of Hadrian, Augustus and Julius Caesar. Not far away is a Buddha head from the Kushan Empire along with a portrait of the Greek philosopher Socrates and a figure kneeling in prayer from China symbolising Confucian thought. The particular grouping of these sculptures compels us to reflect on the forms of wisdom introduced by the three great thinkers.
Religions have often spurred bitter clashes, but the Louvre Abu Dhabi brings different forms of the sacred together, throwing up thought-provoking narratives of the relationship between the earth and the heavens. The gallery on universal religions is a testimony to the UAE’s continued push for multiculturalism and religious tolerance.
This part of the museum is certain to kindle the mystic in you. There’s a cross from France bejewelled with sapphires and amethysts, and it is said to contain a relic of the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Another unmissable piece of art is a magnificent bronze Nataraja (Shiva) from the Chola kingdom (950–1000 CE) of south India. Also on display is a plaque from a Buddhist stupa in Amaravati, a milestone on the road to Mecca in Saudi Arabia (700–900 CE), Quranic verses on sandstone from Rajasthan and a maize goddess figure of the Aztecs. Texts play an equal part in religion. The museum houses rare copies of the Torah, an anthology of Bible psalms from Turkey, an Illuminated Quran from the Ghaznavid dynasty and a rare Buddhist manuscript on a palm leaf from the Pala dynasty (1191 CE).
For connoisseurs of Renaissance art, the museum is the only one in the Middle East to showcase a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. This is the first time that his La Belle Ferronnière has left Europe, albeit on loan. Another famous oil on canvas is of Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.
The modern section sees a Claude Monet oil on canvas, depicting a railway station, on one side and a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh on the other. Popular for photo-ops is Whistler’s Mother, which made its way into popular culture thanks to Mr Bean. It’s also wonderful to see works by Pablo Picasso sharing space with S.H. Raza’s Bindu, truly representing the universality of art.
Louvre Abu Dhabi has also acquired Da Vinci’s long-lost painting Salvator Mundi—portraying a figurative image of Christ—for $450 million. The unveiling had been scheduled for September, but it has been put on hold for now.
After the tour, step out on the plaza to see the last rays of the evening sun glisten on the sea, creating golden ripples. It’s the ideal place to sit and reflect on the history and art one has walked through.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi entry tickets for adults are AED 63 (audio guide AED 20 extra). Opening hours are 10am to 8pm (Tues,Wed, Sat, Sun) and 10am to 10pm (Thurs, Fri). The museum is closed on Mondays. Contact: +971-600565566; louvreabudhabi.ae