April 8, 2011

The Delicate Beauty of Persian Manuscript Painting

Gushtasp Slays the Dragon (folio 250b), early 1440s; opaque watercolor on paper.

On a recent visit to NYC I went to Asia Society to see a marvelous exhibition of an important Persian illuminated manuscript "A Prince's Manuscript Unbound: Muhammad Juki's 'Shahnamah'". The Shahnamah is Persia's national epic, telling of kings and conquerors. Many of the images were of battles and bloodshed, but even so, were full of wonder in their details and color. The careful balancing of one color against the next and the precise lyrical renderings are a joy to see. In the painting above, the pink is caught between two blues and the dragon adds pale flaring greens. I especially love the often used device of having the composition flow outside the frame, as though to bring the story even greater life by bursting its bounds. So much of the pleasure in seeing these paintings is in gazing at the refined details, so the museum kindly provides magnifying lenses for visitors. But the website doesn't have good enlargements, so I thought I'd share some images from a catalog I have on my shelf: A Jeweler's Eye: Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection, a collection housed at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian. (click on images to see enlargements)

The Court of Gayumarth, from a copy of the Shahnamah of Abu'l-Qasim Firdawsi; Iran, 1518; opaque watercolor, ink , and gold on paper; 11.4 x 7.6 inches.

What I most notice in this painting are the patterns, of clothing and of fanciful rocks. The white patterned dress creates a lively counterpoint to the undulating details of background forms, and hidden quietly among them are several animals. King Guyamarth was the first legendary ruler of Iran, who was supposed to have lived on a mountaintop, worn leopard skin clothing and tamed wild beasts.

The Court of Gayumarth, detail

Sultan-Mahmud of Ghazna in Discussion with a Dervish, from a copy of the "Makhzan al-asrar" of Mawlana Haydar; Iran, 1577-78 (?); opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper; 6.9 x 3.6 inches.

This has long been one of my favorite Persian paintings. The simple shapes, rectangular or undulating, are perfectly balanced, as are the pale and bold colors; the gold of the rectangles holding the text are repeated in the fluttering leaves. The carefully observed and refined details are a wonder, such as the storks on the roof and the snake slithering out from behind a wall. As with most Persian, and also Indian, miniature painting, the forms are essentially flat, but there is such sensitivity in the use of line that the merest suggestion of volume creates a sense of solidity.

Khusraw, Dressed as a Shepherd, Visits Farhad, from a copy of the "Khamsa" of Amir Abu'l-Hasan Yaminuddin Shusraw Dihlawi; Iran, 1564; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; 6 x 3.8 inches.

In another rocky landscape, a king goes to visit his rival in love. The trees spread outside the frame and at the bottom of the image is lush green spread with flowers, and fed upon by grazing animals.

A Poem by Amir Shahi, from the Late Shahjahan Album, calligraphy by Mir-Ali al-Sultani; Iran, sixteenth century; opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper mounted on board; 18.5 x 13.75 inches.

Beautiful calligraphy is surrounded by gracefully looping lines of flowering branches, punctuated by elegant animals. It is a love poem, which blooms into something larger:
My heart is caught in your wavy hair.
My head bows only on your path.
Wash with ambergris the tablet of the gracious mind
That the condition of love be one heart and one lover.
Laugh at the fair since not one of a thousand roses of your springtime has yet bloomed.
Close your eyes like narcissus to the good and bad of the world
For in this garden the rose is one thing and the thorn another.
Shahi, do not be sad if your heart is upset
For the condition of the world is not stable.


  1. Aren't these intersting? I love the way they tell the story with their illustrations.

  2. Wow these are remarkable. Such a rich culture. We have much to learn!

  3. Wonderful exhibit. Thanks for this extensive account.

  4. thanks everyone for the comments; I'm glad you like these wonderful paintings.

  5. Wonderful and really cute paintings.