Muslim Miniature Painting

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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.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

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.

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

Persian miniature painting

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

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.

Book of Kings of Shah Tahma

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.

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."

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]

Nilgai (Blue Bull)

“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 March 2024

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