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Stlukesguild

Sultan Muhammad, Bihzad, the Shanameh and Classical Persian Book Illumination-pt. 1

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So let's leave the modern era... and let's leave the art of the West and turn to the Middle-East. As an admitted and unrepentant bibliophile I have long been enamored of the book as an art object: everything from William Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer...



Aldus Manutius’ Hynerotomachia Poliphili...



Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse...



Henri Matisse’s Jazz...



Dore’s illustrated classics... (Dante in this instance):



Chagall’s Four Tales from the Arabian Nights...



and of course William Blake’s visionary illuminations of his own poetry...



...on through contemporary works of "book arts". These have all been... in their way... as familiar and as important to me as an artist as almost any work in the more traditional genre of painting or sculpture.

Being something of a medievalist as well (medieval art offered me the first real understanding of the world of art beyond “realism”), I must admit that it has been the medieval book more than anything that has kept me obsessed with the book as a visual art form. I have had a long love affair with the medieval book in all its splendid variety: the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic manuscripts (the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells, the Lindesfarne Gospels) with their ornate calligraphy woven into the most magical of knotted and intertwined abstractions…



the boldly graphic, expressively colored and often horrific Hiberno-Islamic illuminations of the Commentaries of Beatus of Liebana on the Book of Revelations (works which most certainly were a major source of inspiration for Picasso)...



the marvelous French Gothic manuscripts such as the beautiful Paris Psalter...



and the expressionistic Hours of the Rohan Master:



Of course I was forever enchanted with the exquisitely delicate works of the Limbourg Brothers, especially the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, perhaps THE masterwork of late medieval book arts in Europe:



Naturally, I was eventually drawn to the wonders of the book as an art form as it existed beyond the West… especially the Moorish, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian books. The marvelous gilded labyrinths of Islamic calligraphy to be found in the finest volumes of the Qu’ran dazzled me like nothing else...



...save perhaps the most ornate examples of Anglo-Saxon/Celtic interlace.

Even more fascinating were the magical manuscripts illuminating the most illustrious work of Persian poetry: Nezami (Nezami-ye Ganjavi),Omar Khayyám, Attar (Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm), Shams (Shams-e-Tabrīzī Ab'ul Hasan Yamīn al-Dīn Khusrow), Saadi (Saadi-Muslih-ud-Din Mushrif ibn Abdullah), Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi), Hafez (Khwāja Šams ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī). These enchanting illuminated miniatures, gilded and spectacularly patterned, teeming with tiny, elegant figures and staged in the most sumptuous bedecked interiors or the most sensuous and idyllic garden settings immediately brought to life the whole resplendent, exotic, and sensual atmosphere of the Arabian Nights... the exotic Middle-east as a Westerner might dream it. These were the most fabulous of visual fairy tales and dreamscapes in which one might lose oneself for hours.

Persian culture is ancient and Persia had existed as a stable empire for some 1300 years, far outlasting its great rivals, Greece and Rome. From 643-650 the Persian Empire under the Sasanian rulers suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Byzantine Empire which so weakened them as to result in their subsequent subjugation by the small and numerically inferior Islamic Arab forces, and later by invading Mongols. It isn't until the 11th century and the rise of the great classical Persian poets, especially Abolqasem Ferdowsi, whose Shahnameh is the epic poem of Persia/Iran, that Persian culture once again began to assert itself.

Persia had accepted the Arab religion of Islam, but contrary to Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari's iconoclastic strictures as put forth in his Life of the Prophet, (the al-Jaami al-Sahih), and the influence of the rise of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire beginning in the 8th century under the emperor, Leo II, the tradition of imagery and visual narrative was deeply ingrained in Persian culture.

With the rise to power of the Safavid rulers in 1501, and a growing awareness of their own Persian history and culture, Persian poetry and art entered a "golden age". Manuscript illumination became thought of as the highest form of art, combining calligraphy:



... magnificent endsheets:



... marvelous and magical landscapes:



... ornate interwoven abstractions:



... even collage! as in this page in which each shape in the design and the very lettering itself is produced from cut paper!

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