France's Louvre Museum is unveiling this week a new wing devoted to Islamic art, with the long-gestating project debuting during a period of increased tension with the Muslim community over a French publication's caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Louvre's new addition, which cost nearly 100 million euros (about $127 million Cdn) is its biggest project since the famed Parisian art museum unveiled its I.M. Pei-designed, now-iconic glass pyramid in 1988.

The dragonfly-shaped new galleries will showcase a rotating display of artifacts from the Louvre's collection of Islamic art, which includes pieces dating from as far back as the 7th century.

The Louvre's collection includes:

  • massive mosaics.
  • textiles.
  • Central Asian tiles inscribed with calligraphy.
  • miniature paintings.
  • a rare Syrian vase inscribed with what's believed to be the oldest known love letter from the Islamic world.
  • jewel-laden ornaments.
  • enamelled glass objets d'art.
  • a 14th century Islamic basin inlaid with silver and gold, used for the baptism of France's King Louis XIII.


The Louvre's department of Islamic Arts chief Sophie Makariou, right, discusses an artifact with government officials, including French President Francois Hollande, second from right, and Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti, third from left. (Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP/Getty Images)

The new galleries will showcase "the radiant face of a civilization," Louvre director Henri Loyrette told reporters at a launch event.

The new wing opens to the public on Saturday.

President opens new wing

French President François Hollande was joined by Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev for an opening ceremony on Tuesday. The new wing is a "political gesture in the service of respect for peace," he said.

Hollande also criticized religious extremists who "destroy the values of Islam by resorting to violence and hate."

This week, France increased security at embassies after the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published lewd caricatures of Muhammad. Countries from Africa to Asia have seen violent protests and at least 30 deaths after the release of a U.S.-made amateur film ridiculing the Prophet. 

"The best weapons for fighting fanaticism that claims to be coming from Islam are found in Islam itself," Hollande said.

"What more beautiful message than that demonstrated here by these works."

The museum first opened its Islamic art department in 2003, during the tenure of former French president Jacques Chirac, who urged a "dialogue of cultures" to break down walls between religions. France is home to more than four million Muslims, western Europe's largest Muslim population.

However, an expansion was necessary because the Louvre did not  have enough space to display what has grown to become a vast collection of Islamic art, including treasures donated by King Mohammed VI of Morocco and the foundation of Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal.


The Louvre's new department of Islamic Arts, the largest of its kind in Europe, will have 3,000 artifacts on display at a time. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from The Associated Press