Islamic Calligraphy, Book Art and Miniature Painting

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Battle from the Shahnameh with calligraphy

Calligraphy has traditionally been regarded as the noblest and most revered form of artistic expression because most of the Arabic words and expressions that are written come from the Qur’an which is regarded as the word of God and thus should be expressed as beautifully and with as much care as possible. The act of making calligraphy is regarded as an act of worship. It has been said that what the “human body has been to Western art, the word has been to Islamic art.”

Most calligraphy consists of scriptures from the Qur’an, sayings of the Prophet and prayers written in Arabic but can also be used in secular expressions. With the use of figures and animals and plant motifs limited by Islamic restrictions, the written word of the Qur’an became an important source and element of Islamic art. Some Arabic calligraphy looks like abstract designs. The Arabic script can be twisted and shaped into all sorts of elaborate geometric and curvilinear designs. The single word Allah has been transformed into labyrinthine designs with hundreds of lines. One of the most common expressions is the “shahada” , the basic statement of Muslim belief: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Another common statement featured in Islamic calligraphy is: "God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His light is a niche wherein is a lamp."

Arabic is a flowing script written and from read top to bottom and right to left (as opposed to left to right like English). It is believed to have been influenced by the Phoenician alphabet, which also provided the basis for Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets, and the language of the Nabataeans, the inhabitants of Petra. Arabic script has been used to write Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and a host of other languages.

In the early days of Islam, Arabic was written in two scripts: “Naskhi”, the everyday cursive form, and “Kufic”, a decorative, rectangular form named after the Iraqi city of Kufa. Kufic was commonly used in calligraphy.

Over time six cursive styles became widely used: 1) “thuluth”, 2) “muhhaqqaq”, 3) “naskh”, 4) “rayhani” , 5) “tauqi” and 6) “riqa”. They were used for both religious and secular texts. Some were favored by poets. Among the most highly valued forms of calligraphy were “museelsel”, in which an entire phrase was rendered without lifting a pen; and “makil kufi”, the angular script written in a square format.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art, Architecture and Images: Islamic Art And Architecture ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Wikipedia article on Islamic architecture Wikipedia ; Islamic Finder ; Islamology Picture gallery ; Islamic Images ; Islamic Images ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam ; Muslim Women ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic ; Islamic Art Art History Resources

Books: Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Calligraphy in Islamic Art

Islamic calligraphy can be found in all kinds of art forms and objects: manuscripts, vases, plates, silver plates, silk robes, pottery, coins and a variety of object de art. Some of the most beautiful calligraphy is on glass and metal vessels. Mosques are feature huge room-size medallions with calligraphy on them. Some of the most gifted calligraphers made imperial Qur’ans and “tugras” (sultan signatures) for the sultans and architectural inscriptions for great mosques. Their work is sometimes executed with gold on a background of lapis lazuli.

Hilye-i serif (Muhammad's physical form)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. It is significant that the Qur’an, the book of God's revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted in Arabic, and that inherent within the Arabic script is the potential for developing a variety of ornamental forms. The employment of calligraphy as ornament had a definite aesthetic appeal but often also included an underlying talismanic component. While most works of art had legible inscriptions, not all Muslims would have been able to read them. One should always keep in mind, however, that calligraphy is principally a means to transmit a text, albeit in a decorative form. [Source: Department of Islamic Art,Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Objects from different periods and regions vary in the use of calligraphy in their overall design, demonstrating the creative possibilities of calligraphy as ornament. In some cases, calligraphy is the dominant element in the decoration. In these examples, the artist exploits the inherent possibilities of the Arabic script to create writing as ornament. An entire word can give the impression of random brushstrokes, or a single letter can develop into a decorative knot. In other cases, highly esteemed calligraphic works on paper are themselves ornamented and enhanced by their decorative frames or backgrounds. Calligraphy can also become part of an overall ornamental program, clearly separated from the rest of the decoration. In some examples, calligraphy can be combined with vegetal scrolls on the same surface though often on different levels, creating an interplay of decorative elements. \^/


According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Qur'an is Islam's holiest book. Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel, it is considered by Muslims to be the written record of the word of God. In the year 610 A.D., the Prophet frequently visited a mountain cave called Hira', located outside of Mecca, to meditate and pray. On one such visit, Gabriel asked him to recite the first five verses of the Qur'an. He commanded: "Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from an embryo; Read, for your Lord is most beneficent; Who taught by the pen; Taught man what he did not know" (Sura 96). [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The divine revelations continued over the course of the next twenty years, first in Mecca, and then in Medina following the migration (hijra) of Muhammad and his followers in 622 A.D. (equivalent to the first year of the hijri calendar). Toward the end of his life, Muhammad began to create a physical copy of the revelations, but he was unable to complete this project before his death in 632 A.D. In the following years, his most trusted companions undertook the task of collecting them from written and oral sources.

9th century Quran

The final codified consonantal form of the Qur'an is thought to have been produced during the reign of 'Uthman (r. 644–56 A.D.), the third of the four "rightly guided caliphs" (al-khulafa-yi al-rashidun). The text has remained almost unaltered to the present day. Because of its divine nature, the Qur'an has been considered by Muslims to be the "mother of all books," or the Umm al-Kitab, and its impact on the arts of the book in the Islamic world has thus been indelible. \^/

The Qur'an is composed of 114 suras (chapters) arranged in order of descending length excluding the first. Many manuscripts, however, are divided into thirty sections, or juz', of equal length (37.142). In this format, the entire Qur'an can be read over the course of a thirty-day month (usually during the month of Ramadan), with one volume being undertaken each day. Other less common units of division, the manzil and the hizb, divide the text into seven or sixty parts, respectively. \^/

Arabic is written with twenty-eight letters of only eighteen distinct forms; dotting above and below these primary forms distinguish between otherwise identical letters. Early Qur'ans often left out these markings (i'jam) as well as short vowels that appear as symbols above and below letters, assuming that the text would be used as a memory aide for recitation by readers who were already familiar with its content. \^/

Early Qur'ans (8th–early 13th Centuries)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The earliest Qur'ans were written in the hijazi or mayil ("leaning") scripts. These scripts—mayil being the transitional script before kufic came into use—slope toward the right (1979.201). The calligraphic style kufic, so named after its origins in the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq, is characterized by more static and angular upright letters that were well suited to writing on parchment as well as to use in architecture and decorative objects. During the Abbasid period, Qur'an manuscripts were produced on horizontally-oriented parchment to match the style of kufic script in which letters were usually extended to create justified margins (37.142). In some cases, individual words were even split across two lines for aesthetic reasons. Simple verse markers composed of stacked diagonal lines or in the form of rosettes were used to guide the reader, but words were typically left unvoweled and without consonant points (i'jam).[Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

folio from an 8th or 9th century Qur'an

“While early single-volume Qur'ans were often large and even monumental for use in recitations (2004.87), others were miniature in scale (62.152.2) and may have been used as talismans. Regardless of size, great attention was paid to preparing the parchment to receive ink and to the calligraphy itself. In some cases, the parchment was dyed a rich color, further elaborating on the already complex process of preparing the ground (40.164.1a). This practice was first employed in Christian Byzantine manuscripts, which were sometimes dyed purple and written on with gold or silver ink, perhaps inspiring one particularly luxurious manuscript now known as the Blue Qur'an (2004.88). \^/

As paper was imported along trade routes from China to the Middle East, Qur'ans were produced in this new material, which was more economical and easier to prepare than parchment. The introduction of paper into the region allowed for the production of far more Qur'ans than had previously been possible. In North Africa and Al-Andalus, however, parchment continued as the preferred medium for Qur'ans until the fourteenth century (42.63). Despite a continued conservative use of this material, these manuscripts were stylistically very different from earlier kufic Qur'ans, instead employing the maghribi (western) script, characterized by fine spidery lines whose full curves descend deeply below the line of text. Ornate verse markers in the shape of medallions, together with other decoration, further differentiate these later parchment Qur'ans from their predecessors. These illuminated elements not only beautify the Qur'an, but they also serve a primary purpose of aiding in recitation and prayer. \^/

In other regions, Qur'ans were produced on paper in the "new style" script, sometimes referred to as "Eastern kufic" or "Broken kufic" (2007.191). This script, with taller letters and more variation in line thickness, marked a shift to vertically oriented Qur'an manuscripts. The difference between tall and short letters is highly exaggerated in "new style" script, where the letters alif and lam extend far above the main line of the text (29.160.23). Qur'ans from this period often include more ornate decoration and diacritical marks than earlier Qur'an manuscripts (40.164.5ab). \^/

from a 9th century Quran

Books: Baker, Colin. Qur'an Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design. London: The British Library, 2007; Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006; Deroche, Francois. The Abbasid Tradition: Qur'ans of the 8th to 10th centuries A.D. London: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992; Deroche, Francois. Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script. London: Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, 2005; Gharipour, Mohammad and Irvin Cemil Schick, eds. Calligraphy and Architecture in the Muslim World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013; Roxburgh, David. Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2007; Safadi, Yasin. The Qur'an: Catalogue of an Exhibition of Qur'an Manuscripts at the British Library. London: World of Islam Publishing Co. Ltd for the British Library, 1976; Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York: New York University Press, 1984; Suleman, Fahmida, ed. Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur'an and its Creative Expression: Selected Proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 17-21 October 2003. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of Ismailic Studies, 2007; Welch, Anthony. Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. \^/

Islamic Book Art

Many Islamic paintings displayed in galleries were originally illustrations from bound texts produced for wealthy patrons who enjoyed examining the books in the privacy of their quarters as a form of entertainment when there were no movies or Internet. At the time most great Islamic book paintings were made few people were literate, including royals and wealthy landowners. A typical page from a manuscript featured men and women, palm trees, a desert and mosques. Some works even contain images of Muhammad and winged celestial beings Asian faces.

Making manuscript was collaborative effort involving calligraphers, painters, illustrators, illuminators and bookbinders. The person who oversaw a project was usually the head librarian, often a member of the patron’s household. The calligraphers generally did their work first, followers by the painters and illustrators and then the bookbinders, who sewed the folios and bound them in covers.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The technical aspects of calligraphy, painting, and bookbinding are important facets of the study of Islamic art. Treatises by sixteenth-century Persian authors Qazi Ahmed and Sadiqi Beq are the major sources on the working methods of artisans in the Islamic world. Further information on the organization of manuscript workshops and the division of labor within them is recorded in court annals and payrolls. [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The production of illustrated books was concentrated in royal workshops because of the large expense involved. Many rulers were connoisseurs who collected books and paintings by famous artists. Books were also financial investments, donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, and status symbols, presented as gifts between heads of state. Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans. Once a patron decided on a project, the director of the workshop saw it through to its conclusion. He laid out the pages, decided which parts of the text to illustrate, and chose scribes and artists based on the particular project.” \^/

Making Islamic Book Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat. To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mold was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mold. Decorative touches were often added to the paper: some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold, and others were marbled. Marbled papers were created by dispensing drops of colorant onto the surface of a water bath and running combs through the drops to create a pattern; a sheet of paper was then laid on the surface of the bath to absorb the colors. After drying, the paper was prepared to receive ink and paint with the application of a starchy solution that rendered the surface smooth and nonporous. A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens, and pressed guidelines into the paper. He then copied the text, leaving spaces for illustrations where the director of the workshop had indicated. [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Muhammad give the hand of his daughter Fatima to Imam Ali from the e Siyer-i Nebi (a Turkish epic about the life of Muhammad, completed around 1388)

“After the text was completed, the pages passed to the painters. Most manuscripts were the work of a number of artists, each chosen to illustrate a particular scene; some artists, for instance, were known for their portraits, others for their battle scenes. A single page might also represent a collaborative effort, as junior artists were called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. Some elements might be copied from preexisting sketches by means of a device called a pounce. To create a pounce, the artist laid a piece of transparent paper or animal skin over the sketch to be copied and pricked holes into the top sheet around the outlines of the image below. To transfer the image to his new painting, he laid the pounce on top of the fresh sheet of paper and dusted it with charcoal powder from a cloth bag. \^/

“To create his pigments, the artist turned to nature. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow), and malachite (for green). These materials were expensive and substitutes were often used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulfur created red. (Because a number of these materials are unstable or corrosive, the colors of many illustrated manuscripts have faded or tarnished, and some paints have eaten through the paper.) The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead. \^/

After the paintings were completed, illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, such as chapter headings, colored frames, and rulings. They also created frontispieces and end pages. Finally, each sheet was burnished with a hard stone or glass. \^/

At this stage, the leaves of the book were ready to be sewn and bound. The covers were joined to a spine and a fore-edge flap that folded over the ends of the pages and tucked under the top cover. Bindings were decorated with simply tooled geometric or vegetal patterns, until the fifteenth-century Persian development of a design with a central oval medallion, pendants, and corner pieces created by the use of a mold. Half the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed, forming a mirror image of the design in the other half. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. Through the sixteenth century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the nineteenth century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works. \^/

Books: Gray, Basil, ed. The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th–16th Centuries. Boulder: Shambhala, 1979; Haldane, Duncan Islamic Bookbindings in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983; Raby, Julian, and Zeren Tanindi Turkish Bookbinding in the 15th Century: The Foundation of an Ottoman Court Style. London: Azimuth Editions, 1993. \^/

Miniature Painting

The miniature painting was one of the most developed form of painting in the Islamic art. Most of these works came from manuscripts. They feature flat, two-dimensional surfaces, fine draftsmanship, exquisite details, and a brilliant, jewel-like pallet. Some of the details are so tiny that museums that display them often have magnifying glasses on hand so that viewers can examine details that are difficult to make out with the naked eye.

The idea behind miniature painting was not to create grand works of art for all the world to see—such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. But, rather to produce a personal work of art that one could carry with them and examine when they felt like. Muslim rulers moved around quite a bit, leading soldiers into battle and checking on the state of their kingdoms, so it made more sense for them to make small works they could carry with them as opposed to large works in a palace that was rarely visited.

The artists who created miniature paintings generally worked in a studio and painted with water-colors using single-squirrel-hair brushes. They may have also worked with lenses but no one has been able to prove it. Illustrators first outlined the compositions with the single hair brushes. Then paint was added. Pigments were prepared from plant, mineral and animal substances, such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl, and mixed with a binding medium such as gum arabic.

Subjects and Images in Miniature Painting

Some of the earliest known illustrated works came from the great Arab Islamic kingdoms in Syria and Iraq in 11th and 12th centuries. These included medical and scientific treatises and Arab literary classics. Later subjects included the reigns and lives of Ottoman sultans; episodes from the Shah Nameh ("the Book of Kings”), the Persian national epic, Mogul stories and works by famous poets.

The lives and exploits of kings and princes were often the subjects of miniature paintings. Some depicted battle scenes with spurting blood, severed limbs and wounded animals. Other showed the rulers enjoying peacetime pursuits such hanging out in their gardens or enjoying their harems. From the late 16th century artists began to create works of art free from any specific text. The paintings, which were often collected in albums ( muraqqa), were inspired by poems, the artist’s imagination and direct observation.

Persian miniature painting

Images in miniature painting tend to be idealized, mystical and surreal rather than realistic. Their intent seems to be to entertain the eyes. Describing an image in a miniature painting, Paul Richard wrote in the Washington Post, “A multicolored bird, half hen, half Chinese dragon, swoops through golden skies. On the grassy plain below an archer stare. We can see, if we peer closer, the jewels in the scimitar and the tiny golden arabesques that decorate his bow and his arrows and their feathers and the thin string of his bow.” Some Islamic painting of mountains and trees resembles the landscape silk screens of Chinese artists. This partly the result of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century that brought Chinese culture to the west for the first time on a grand scale.

Producing Miniature Paintings

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Miniature paintings, as book illustrations and album leaves are often called, involved the collaboration of many artists and apprentices in the court workshops. The process began with discussions between patron and artist to determine subject matter. After creating a sketch and then a finished draw- ing for approval, the artist would “pounce” (trace) the lines of the drawing. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“This was done by putting a transparent material, often gazelle skin, over the drawing and pricking the outlines. The tracing was placed on the paper to be painted and black pigment was pushed into the tiny pricked holes creat- ing dotted lines. Then the tracing material was removed and the dotted lines were connected with brushwork.

“Apprentices would grind costly minerals such as malachite (green) and lapis lazuli (blue). Other pigments came from colored earths, the lac secreted by a beetle (shades of red), indigo (blue) from the plant, and brilliant yellow made of urine from cows fed on mango leaves. These colors were mixed with a binding medium of gum arabic or glue to make an opaque watercolor paint.

“Apprentices were often the younger members of a family of craftsmen in a workshop. The youngest made the paintbrushes by inserting very fine ani- mal hairs into quill handles. Older assistants painted the less important details. Often the artist applied several layers of paint to create particularly bright or strong colors. The unfinished painting was laid on a smooth sur- face and its back was typically burnished with a smooth agate to create a hard and permanent paint surface. Details were added after this process.”

Persian Miniature Painting

Book of Kings of Shah Tahma

Persian miniaturists are perhaps the best known Persian artists. They helped found the Mughal school of painting and their influence is found throughout the Islam world, Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia.Famous miniature painters include Abd al-Hayy.

One miniature painting of Sultan Hosayn Mirza Bayqara shows him relaxing within his walled in garden with pools and green marble floors, defying the Muslim ban on alcohol, drinking red wine with obvious delight from an agate cup while the women from his harem entertain him with their dances. He wears cape decorated with gold and a turban with a heron plume sticking out of it. Many figures have halo-like auras called “Divine Glories.” They usually feature a greenish glow fringed with rays of gold or sometimes a light shimmer. The Divine Glory was usually given to Persian rulers for the conquerors that killed them. Unlike halos in Western paintings that were usually given to saints, Divine Glories were given to brutal conquerors such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.

Manuscript paintings were often treasured more by shahs and sultans than their gold and jewels. It is not unusual for singles pages from treasured manuscripts to sell for over $1 million at art auctions today.

Book of Kings (Shahnama)

The Book of Kings, commissioned by the Safavids king, Shah Tahmasb (1424-1576), is regarded as the greatest work of 16th century Persian art. The works of several artists, it was created over a 20 year period and given to the Ottoman court by the Shah after the death of Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566.

Some images are very violent: kings cutting an enemy in half. the hero Rustam removing a heart and liver from a demon. Other images are very serene and lyrical: a wise man presiding over a meeting between two shy lovers sitting under wildflowers and date palms. Yet others feature animals and supernatural fire-breathing beasts. "Persian artist often exercised a subtle sense of humor in their depiction of animals and even landscapes. Birds with faces appeared in trees. Rocks shaped like bodies appeared in landscapes. Boats were made of an amalgamation of human figures.”

Francesca Leoni of Princeton University wrote: “With its 50,000 rhyming couplets the Shahnama, or "Book of Kings," is one of the most voluminous epics of world literature. The poem narrates the history of the ancient kings of Iran from the mythical beginnings to the Arab conquest in 651 A.D. It was completed around 1010 A.D. by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi Tusi (935–1020), and was dedicated to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998–1030), who had succeeded in gaining power over eastern Iran and modern-day Afghanistan by the end of the tenth century. In the eyes of the poet, this king appeared as the long-awaited ruler who could end dynastic strife and reunify the region. Thus, he seemed the ideal dedicatee for a work meant to celebrate Iran's past glory. Unfortunately, the ruler's response was not as enthusiastic and generous as expected. According to some sources, before dying, the poor and sick Firdausi voiced his disappointment for the little compensation received in a harsh satire against the sultan. [Source: Francesca Leoni, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi: Luhrasp Hears from the Returning Paladins of the Vanishing Kai Khusrau

“The history of Iran recounted in the Shahnama unfolds in fifty kingdoms, which are divided into three successive dynasties: the Pishdadiyan (1970.301.13)—the early legendary shahs, who established civilization (1970.301.2) and fought against the forces of evil (1970.301.3); the Kayanids—the principal protagonists of the enmity with Turan, the first and foremost antagonist of Iran (1970.301.36); and the Sasanians—the last glorious dynasty to rule a unified Iran before the advent of Islam (1970.301.62). The last section of the poem is considered to be the more historical one, and was occasionally referred to by medieval Islamic historiographers. Yet, the poem also revives pre-Islamic traditions, folklore, and oral literature. Kings and heroes are engaged in battles against foreign monstrous enemies (1970.301.4) and supernatural creatures (1970.301.51; 1970.301.3) that threaten their lives and the survival of their reigns. At the same time, the poem meditates on more profound human experiences and narrates the moral struggles, romantic interludes, and deaths of its many protagonists (1970.301.35). \^/

“With its interplay of lore and history (1970.301.73), the Shahnama offers models of conduct and rulership that inspired numerous generations of rulers. In addition to being a great work of literature, in fact, the poem can also be considered a successful example of "mirror for princes," a popular genre in the medieval and early modern Islamic world intended for the education and edification of rulers. The teachings and moral exempla offered by the virtuous kings and paladins of the Shahnama are among the aspects that explain its great success throughout history. \^/

“All kings who ruled Iran, both local and foreign, continued to commission the production of new copies of the epic, which were often lavishly illustrated and illuminated. By appropriating this cultural treasure and assimilating its ideas and values, many foreign rulers also used it as an ideological tool, one that allowed them to establish their legitimate succession to the kings of the past. Prestigious manuscripts such as the so-called Great Mongol Shahnama (ca. 1330), also in the Metropolitan Museum's collection, the Baysunghur Mirza Shahnama (1430), and the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama (1520–40) (see below)—sponsored, respectively, by the Ilkhanid (1256–1353), Timurid (1389–1501), and Safavid dynasties (1501–1736)—survive as evidence of this practice, and as testaments to the cultural and artistic importance of this literary masterpiece through the centuries.” \^/

Books: Canby, Sheila R. The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501–1722. New York: Abrams, 2000; Davis, Dick, trans. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. New York: Viking, 2006; Dickson, Martin Bernard, and Stuart Cary Welch The Houghton Shahnama. 2 vols. . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981; Hillenbrand, Robert "The Iconography of the Shah-namah-yi Shahi." In Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, edited by Charles Melville, pp. 53–78.. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996; Thompson, John, and Sheila R. Canby, eds. Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501–1576. Milan: Skira, 2003; Welch, Stuart C. A King's Book of Kings: The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972; Welch, Stuart C. Wonders of the Age: Masterpieces of Early Safavid Painting, 1501–1576. Cambridge, Mass.: Fogg Art Museum, 1979.

Book of Kings of Shah Tahmasp

Book of Kings of Shah Tahmasp: Bahram Gur Slays the Rhino-Wolf, Folio 586, 1530-35

Francesca Leoni of Princeton University wrote: “The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76), also known as the Shahnama-yi Shahi, is arguably the most luxuriously illustrated copy of Firdausi's epic ever produced in the history of Persian painting (1970.301.21). Its pages, with outstanding measurements for an illustrated book (approximately 48 x 32 cm), are made of fine paper enriched with large gold-sprinkled borders and lavish illuminations. Accompanying the 759 folios of text, written in superb nasta'liq script, are 258 paintings of exquisite quality and artistic originality. [Source: Francesca Leoni, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“This project was realized at the royal atelier in Tabriz, the first capital of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736), and involved two generations of the most renowned artists of the time. Among them were Sultan Muhammad, Mir Musavvir, and Aqa Mirak, who succeeded each other as directors of the project through the years. Scholars still disagree about the actual dates of execution of the manuscript. It was begun around the early 1520s, probably under Shah Isma'il (r. 1501–24), the founder of the dynasty, and carried out for at least another twenty years under Shah Tahmasp, the manuscript's dedicatee and principal sponsor. \^/

“The artistic importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated. It is considered one of the highest achievements in the arts of the book for its superb calligraphy, painting, and illumination. From a pictorial point of view, it also marks the synthesis of the two most important phases of the Persian tradition—the Turkman style, which developed in Tabriz and Shiraz, and the Timurid style, associated with Herat. These two strains were absorbed into the new artistic idiom of the early Safavids. Thus, the lively treatment and bright colors of landscape (1970.301.2; 1970.301.21) and surfaces (architecture: 1970.301.13; 1970.301.35; textiles: 1970.301.2; 1970.301.51) inspired by the Turkman school, coexist with the more sober palette and balanced compositional layout (1970.301.62) of the Herat school, whose impact is particularly evident in some of the later paintings (1970.301.73). \^/

“Not long after its completion, the manuscript left Iran and was sent as a gift on the occasion of the accession of the Ottoman sultan Selim II (r. 1566–74). Contemporary Ottoman and European sources document the arrival of the Iranian embassy in Edirne on February 21, 1568, and even record the thirty-four camels bearing luxurious gifts that accompanied it. The Shahnama-yi Shahi is explicitly identified in one account as a lavish copy of the Shahnama in the name of Shah Tahmasp with 259 (sic) miniatures, and listed along with the Holy Qur'an, oriental porcelains, precious textiles, brocades, and silk carpets, also part of the gift. Until the early twentieth century, the manuscript remained in the library of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, where it continued to entertain generations of rulers. The inserts with commentaries and descriptions of the paintings in Ottoman Turkish, which were added sometimes around 1800, bear witness to the artistic curiosity and intellectual inspiration this work provided many centuries after its production. Today the manuscript is dispersed among private and public collections. The Metropolitan Museum has seventy-eight of the pages with paintings in its collection.”

Describing a painting of an albino prince abandoned by his father in a mountain and rescued by a dragon-bird, Paul Richards wrote in the Washington Post, “The dragon-bird is flecked with gold. Her wings are purple, green and red. A deer is in her orange beak, a leopard in her talons. All the leopard’s spots are shown, as are his claws and bleeding wounds, the white hair on his tummy, and even the small follicles from which his whiskers grow...Its golden sky is sprinkled with curios Chinese clouds. The donkeys in the foreground wear tassels on their trappings and bells around their necks. Tiny birds and bears watch in astonishment. And the mountainside is haunted: a dozen spirit faces are hidden in the crags.” The entire work is only about six inches wide.

Mantiq al–Tayr Manuscript

Mantiq zl-tair

This illustrated manuscript of Farid al-Din Attar's mystical poem Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds) is one of the most important illustrated manuscripts from Timurid Persia (1370–1507) and a highlight of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This manuscript has several distinctive features. It was initiated under the Timurid court atelier in Herat and completed in the Safavid court atelier in Isfahan. It contains illustrations which are often attributed to the celebrated painter Bihzad, who served the Timurid monarch Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506) and a nobleman, cAlishir Nava'i (1440–1501), and is one of the few extant illustrated manuscripts of the Mantiq al-Tayr. [Source:Yumiko Kamada Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, The Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Yumiko Kamada of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “As the colophon states, this manuscript was completed on the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900, that is, AH 892 (April 25, 1487) and several illustrations were attached. Although four illustrations can be dated to the late 1480s, for some reason the manuscript was not completed. More than a hundred years later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it came into the possession of Shah Abbas (r. 1587–1629), whose artists remounted the folios and added a frontispiece and four contemporary illustrations in a new binding. Shah Abbas then presented the manuscript to the Ardabil shrine in 1608/9. \^/

Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-Tayr, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir, the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds' journey the Sufi path. \^/

One of the eight illustrations, The Conference of the Birds (63.210.11), is the only illustration that depicts the main story. The remaining seven illustrations belong to anecdotes told in the story as precepts. Recent study has revealed that this manuscript originally consisted of sixty-seven folios and had nine illustrations. Since many text pages and illustrations had been lost or damaged, Safavid artists added or replaced fifteen text folios, four illustrations, and a frontispiece in order to reconstruct the manuscript. However, an illustrated Timurid folio is still missing. It may have been supplemented at that time or removed later. \^/

from the Hamzanama: The Spy Zanbur Bringing Mahiyya to the City of Tawariq

While the Safavid illustrations provide straightforward pictorialization of the text, the Timurid illustrations include many motifs that await study and analysis. The latter's complex riddlelike nature is consistent with Persian poetry of the late Timurid period, which is characterized by a taste for intricacy. Rulers and influential men at the Timurid court held literary gatherings called majlis and enjoyed solving poetic riddles with rhetorical devices such as homonymic puns. The participants of a majlis may have found pleasure in deciphering the Timurid illustrations of this manuscript. \^/

At the end of the fifteenth century in Herat, many aristocrats and high officials patronized art and literature. Possessing rare and luxuriously illustrated books was one of the key pastimes of the nobility. Some had their own ateliers, but no one is known to have operated an atelier equal to that of either Husain Baiqara or cAlishir Nava'i. \^/

The quality of the illustrations and the fine calligraphy accompanying the illuminations indicate that this manuscript was produced in a leading atelier. However, the colophon suggests that its patron was not the ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara, but rather cAlishir Nava'i, a sophisticated poet-statesman who had his own atelier, patronizing many poets, scholars, calligraphers, musicians, and painters, including the celebrated Bihzad and Mirak Naqqash. He was so impressed with Attar that he wrote the Lisan al-Tayr, in imitation of Attar's Mantiq al-Tayr. This manuscript clearly demonstrates the close connections between painting, poetry, and Sufism at the end of the fifteenth century.

Books: Kamada, Yumiko "A Taste for Intricacy: An Illustrated Manuscript of Mantiq al-Tayr in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Orient 45 (2010), pp. 129–75.. 2010; Kia, Chad "Is the Bearded Man Drowning? Picturing the Figurative in a Late Fifteenth-Century Painting from Heart." Muqarnas 23 (2006), pp. 85–105.. Swietochowski, Marie G. "The Historical Background and Illustrative Character of the Metropolitan Museum's Mantiq al-Tayr of 1483." In Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, edited by Richard Ettinghausen, pp. 39–72.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972.

Mughal Miniature Painting

The Mughals often produced their art for books. They introduced the vertical page format of the Persian and European work to India. Miniature paintings were created for these books, which were largely made to be privately viewed by their owners, often Mughal emperors. Paintings were mounted with elaborate borders and bound in imperial albums.

The Mughals adopted Persian miniature painting. Mughal-period craftsmen were very good at miniature-style sculpture, engraving and calligraphy. The Mughal emperors carried Qur’ans that were so small they fit into a compartment on a ring. Under emperor Jahangir (1605-1627), Western engraving and English-style miniature portraits were depicted using Eastern techniques.

Manuscript paintings were often treasured more by shahs and sultans than their gold and jewels. It is not unusual for single pages from treasured manuscripts to sell for over $1 million at art auctions today. Persian miniaturists were perhaps arguable the most praised Persian artists. They helped found the Mughal school of painting and their influence is found throughout the Islamic world, Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia.

“Moraqqa-e Golsham” ("The Rose Garden Album") is regarded by some as the most important work of Mughal art. It is a volume of illuminated miniature paintings made for the 17th century Mughal emperor Jahangir. Taken to Tehran in the 18th century, when Delhi was sacked by the Persians, it contains many interesting blends of Western and Eastern art, including images of the Virgin Mary and angels surrounded by Islamic motifs and Persian miniatures. The problem with the “Moraqqa-e Golsham” is that most of the manuscript sits in the Golestan Palace in Tehran, where no one can see it.


Padshahnama: Shah Jahan Watching an elephant fight

One the greatest work of miniature painting is the “Padshahnama,” a 10-inch-wide book with 478 pages of text handwritten on gold flecked paper. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, Padshahnama literally means "Chronicle of the King of the World." It is a handwritten history of the first 10 years of Shah-Jahan's reign, containing 44 paintings and two illuminations of major events such as battles. court scenes, executions and hunts. Most paintings measure 9 by 13 inches. Some are so detailed they must have taken years to paint. [Source: Paul Richards, the Washington Post, May 18, 1997]

Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote: "The pictures on its pages—which show elephants, walled kingdoms, dancing girls and diamonds—aren't like any pictures you've every seen. They're clearer and deeper. The little puff of dust in the upper corner of 'The capture of Orcha by imperial forces' becomes, if you peer into it, an army on the march, with cavalry and infantry and colored banners flying.If you look more closely you can see the saddle blanket on the elephant. If you peer close you can see the fringes on the saddle blanket."

Among the painting in the Padshahnama are "Prince Awrangzeb facing a maddened elephant named Sudhakar," "The delivery of presents for Prince Dara Shiko's wedding," and "Shah-Jahan honoring Prince Awrangzeb at Agra before his wedding." The "The death of Khan Jahan Lodi" shows severed heads with little specks that on close examination are flies with abdomen's full of blood. "The wedding procession of Prince Dara Shiko," is only 10-x-5 inches but contain 18 elephants, 31 horses and 282 different people."


The Hamzanama, an illustrated manuscript executed in the 16th century for the great Mughal emperor Akbar, is regarded as one the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art. Some scholars rank it with the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. The “Hamzanama” is a series of stories about Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza, illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. Produced and made over a 14 year period starting in 1557 by a “factory” of 50 artists under the direction of the Persia-born artist Mir Sayyid Ali, it is a fine example of both Persian and Mughal art. It originally contained 1,400 paintings, of which 200 survive. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, July 21, 2002]

On an exhibition of the Hamzanama at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2002. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: ““Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court...More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 -]

The Hamzanama contains scenes of the exploits of Hamza, a legendary Muslim hero. It is not a collection of miniature paintings intended for private reflection. The pages are huge—over two feet high—and were kept in boxes for public storytelling sessions in which a story teller read the text from the back of the pages for the illiterate emperor and his court.

The Hamzanama paintings features bold colors and are filled with figures, details and psychedelic designs that seems inspired by opium dreams. The paintings were large executed by Hindu artists overseen by Persian masters who tried to incorporate some Western ides of perspective. Different artists worked on different pages. On its pages are graphic images of beheadings and blood-drenched battlefields, leopard-spotted and elephant-tusked demons, and depictions of Hamza as he travels around the world.

See Central Asian Literature .

Nilgai (Blue Bull)

Nilgai (Blue Bull)

Describing a 18.2-x -24.2-centimeter opaque watercolor and gold leaf from an album made for Shah Jahan during the reign of Jahangir by Mansur in 1620, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Emperor Jahangir combined a fascination with the animals, birds, and flow- ers of India with an interest in naturalistic painting. One of his favorite artists, Mansur, accompanied the emperor on travels through his empire and on hunting trips, making sketches of the local flora and fauna. The nilgai, a wild bull with a blue-gray hide, is a dangerous and wily animal to hunt. Mansur probably studied and sketched this nilgai from life in Jahangir’s game park. Later, in his studio, he added the fine brushstrokes suggesting volume and texture. After another artist created the floral border, the picture was ready to be bound in an album for Jahangir to study and admire at his leisure.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“A few faintly sketched plants suggest the field where the nilgai is grazing. All other background details are eliminated to focus on the bull. Mansur’s ability to depict precise natural details of the animal is remarkable. Notice the sense of the bone structure and muscle beneath the short hair on the nilgai’s head. In contrast, the muzzle seems soft and velvety, the hair of the mane bristly, and the tufts beneath the chin and at the tail’s end soft and long.

“Mansur was an admired member of Jahangir’s imperial workshop. His signa- ture in a small curving script immediately to the left of the nilgai’s front legs says, “the work of the servant of the court, Mansur, the Wonder of the Age.” This impressive title was bestowed upon Mansur by the emperor and was his official name at court.

“In contrast to this noble and formal portrait of the nilgai, the borders are filled with elegant, colorful floral scrolls created by another artist whose specialty was painting borders for album leaves. Vines circle about each other, producing flowers such as lilies, narcissus, and morning glories. The borders combine Islamic floral and vine patterns with classical floral motifs recently reinterpreted by Renaissance artists whose works were brought to the Mughal court in the form of prints.

Prince Khurram (later, Shah Jahan) with His Son Dara Shikoh

Describing a 39-x -26.2-centimeter ink, opaque watercolor and gold leaf from an album made for Shah Jahan during the reign of Jahangir by Nanha in 1620, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “On this album page, Prince Khurram and his five-year-old son, Prince Dara, are portrayed sitting quietly upon a golden throne engaged in one of the Shah’s greatest pleasures—admiring and examining jewels. Prince Khurram leans back against an embroidered pillow and studies a large, deep pink gemstone called a spinel (or balas ruby), which he has removed from a dish of emeralds and other gems. Prince Dara, a miniature gold- hilted dagger in his belt, holds a peacock-feather turban ornament and a sweet-smelling flower. Like his father, he wears a turban with ornaments and lavish pearl drop, emerald jewelry, and silk leggings under a belted silk coat. Although the artist seems to have captured a relaxed, private moment between father and son, both their faces are in perfect profile and Prince Khurram’s head emanates a pale golden halo. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“European visitors to the emperor’s brilliant court brought gifts of art from their own lands. There is evidence in this painting that Mughal artists were increasingly aware of European styles of representation. In portraying Prince Khurram’s face, the artist experimented with three-dimensional modeling in light and shadow, and tilted the throne up to show his ability in drawing objects in perspective. The halo around Prince Khurram’s head may also have been inspired by European works of religious art.

The royal pair are portrayed against a plain, light green background that is isolated from the outer border by a dark blue band with gold floral designs. In contrast to the quiet concentration suggested by the expressions and poses of father and son, the outer borders team with flowering plants and with peacocks, cranes, partridges, and pigeons. At the top, two birds swoop toward each other from opposite edges of the page, flying into a realm that symbolizes paradise within a heavenly park. The carefully observed portrayal of plants and birds reflects the great interest of early Mughal rulers in flora and fauna. Both Jahangir and Shah Jahan commissioned floral bor- ders for their album leaves whose forms may have been influenced by books on herbs brought by European ambassadors and merchants.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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