Alexander Brey

Assistant Professor of Art

Historian of art and architecture focusing on the medieval Islamic world. Interests include cross-cultural transmission, landscape studies, and digital art history.

My research focuses on the cross-cultural adaptation of images and ideas in early Islamic visual cultures. My current research project, The Caliph's Prey: Hunting in the Visual Cultures of the Umayyad Empire (661-750 CE), analyzes depictions of hunting and constructed landscapes for hunting. I argue that patrons throughout the first dynastic Islamic empire commissioned these images and monuments in order to assert their cultural self-perceptions in the aftermath of the Arab-Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. While the Islamic rejection of figural imagery in sacred contexts prompted a new sensitivity to image-making and image-viewing throughout the caliphate, the use of figural imagery in secular spaces took on additional importance. Thanks to the widespread popularity of hunting as an elite leisure activity, viewers from varied backgrounds understood the general sense of these images and monuments in spite of the linguistic and cultural divides that persisted following the rapid conquest of a territory stretching from Spain to Tajikistan. Looking at monuments in the capitals, provinces, and frontiers of the Umayyad caliphate, I reconstruct the cultural and imperial associations of different types of hunting imagery, as well as the rhetorical frameworks that guided patrons and craftsmen in the reuse and adaption of hunting imagery for new political contexts.

I also have a substantial research interest in digital methods for art history, focusing on new approaches to documentation, research, and analysis. My research in this field has focused on a medieval Qur-an manuscript in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a collaborative project about networks of artistic contact in French Gothic manuscript illumination.

My teaching introduces students to the art and architecture of the Islamic world, situating objects and monuments in the context of historical global developments and contemporary debates. These include a seminar about the ways that iconoclasm and debates about figural imagery have shaped the religious art and architecture of Islam, a lecture on the art and architecture of the Mediterranean in the later Middle Ages, a survey of Islamic art, and the introductory Art History survey taught by faculty across the department.

Selected Publications

  • "The City of Panjikent and Town Planning," in The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads (Digital Exhibition), ed. Tommy Wise and Judith Lerner, Freer Gallery of Art, 2019
  • "Temporal Network Analysis with R," The Programming Historian 7 (2018(
  • "Quantifying the Qur'an," in The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies, ed. Elias Muhanna, (Boston: De Cruyter, 2016), 151-174.

Selected Talks and Conference Panels

  • "A Tale of Two Tents: Roman-Byzantine Tents in Umayyad Visual Culture," Session: Revisiting Rome in the Medieval Middle East, Annual Meeting of the Middle Eastern Studies Association, New Orleans, 2019
  • "Byzantine Material and Visual Culture in the Umayyad Caliphate," Session: Byzantine Art as a Global Endeavor, Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America: The Global Turn in Medieval Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 2019
  • "Khalid's Dream: Hunting and Conquest at Qusayr 'Amra," Historians of Islamic Art Association Majlis (in conjunction with the College Art Association Annual Conference), Silsila Center for Material Histories at New York University, 2019

Selected Fellowships

  • Network Analysis + Digital Art History, A Getty Advanced Workshop (2019-2020)
  • Educational and Cultural Affairs Junior Fellow, Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem (2017)
  • Garden and Landscape Studies Junior Residential Fellow, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. (2016-2017)
  • Social Sciences Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship (2015)