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Sultan Muhammad, Bihzad, the Shanameh and Classical Persian Book Illumination- pt 2

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Three great schools of painting and book production arose in the cities of Shiraz, Herat, and Tabriz. The school of Shiraz was especially known for a more symmetrical/geometric approach to painting and page layout, and a frieze-like approach... even early on, as can be seen in the Demotte Shanameh.



The Shiraz school would reach its artistic peak with the production of an illuminated copy of Nezami’s Kahmseh, produced in 1491.



The details, clarity, and confidence of this work surpass anything before seen in Persian miniatures. Painting of Shiraz would have a major influence throughout Persia.

The school of Tabriz under the Turkoman workshops was especially known for expressionistic or even “Dionysian” paintings in which figures are staged in the most sensuous, and florid landscapes. Faces and creatures (“grotesques”) are often found hidden in the rocks and vegetation. The luxuriant and lush foliage and rolling clouds were clearly influenced by Chinese art. To this the Turkoman artists at Tabriz added the most brilliant coloring.





One of the most spectacular manuscripts to have been produced at Tabriz was an unfinished Shanameh (1515-1522) of which only a single image remains: Rustam Sleeping while Rakhsh Fights the Lion,attributed to the painter Sultan Muhammad:



The scale and quality of this painting, are enough to substantiate its claim to having been one of the greatest masterworks of Turkoman style at Tabriz. Sultan Muhammad, the leading painter of the Turkoman style, is credited with several other exceptional works, perhaps most brilliant being the luminous image of the Miraj or the heavenly ascension of the prophet Muhammad, painted for an illuminated text of Nezami’s Khamseh (c. 1540):



The painting school of Herat was established in the early 15th century drawing upon many of the best artists from Shiraz and Tabriz. The artists of Herat were especially accomplished at painting people staged within complex settings beautifully composed. The greatest of the artists at Herat was Kamal ud-Din Behzad Herawi or Bihzad (c. 1460–1535), generally acknowledged as the greatest of all Persian painters. Bihzad had a special talent for not only portraying people but also in conveying a clarity of action or narrative, and staging this within a sophisticated space that drew great attention to the surroundings of everyday urban life.

In this scene of a beheading (below) Bihzad's use of color and positioning of the figures leads the eye to the central drama... and then around the picture where we find a great variety of personalities and their differing... even conflicting responses to the event unfolding before us:



In another illumination, Bihzad explores the everyday actions of urban life in a major Persian metropolis:



The eye is led around through scenes of beggars, barbers, bathers, and carpet sellers. Bihzad adds the sophisticated element of the architectural detailing breaking out of the rectangular picture plane.

One of the best examples of Bihzad’s work from Herat is to be found in his painting of Joseph and Zulaykha (the Hebrew Joseph and Potipher’s wife):



In this painting the virtuous Joseph flees the amorous advances of Zulaykha running through a labyrinthine space in which the viewer is given a simultaneous interior and exterior view. Bricks, patterned tiles, Persian rugs, and steep stairwells are at once dazzling and disorienting… perhaps conveying Joseph’s own feelings as he seeks to escape from Zulaykha. The artist allows towers and balconies to again break out of the rectangular space while also weaving the text throughout the image in the most sophisticated manner.

Under the Safavid rulers, and the examples of Sultan Muhammad and Bihzad, there is a brilliant synthesis of the various Persian miniature styles that would result in what is arguably THE masterwork of Persian painting, the so-called Shahnameh of Tabriz (or the "Houghton Shahnameh"). Entire workshops of calligraphers, painters, gilders, leather workers, book binders, etc... were employed under the oversight of masters, including Sultan Muhammad and Bihzad. The format for each individual illustration was conceived of independently and involved the input of many different hands… some with quite dissimilar methods of working, and so for a book to maintain any sense of continuity and coherence demanded clear thinking, planning, and foresight on the part of the masters. This must have been especially challenging considering the fact the text and paintings could not always be completed in sequence. In order to maintain a degree of continuity of style, the artists in the workshops employed scrapbook collections or anthologies of calligraphy styles...



...painting styles for rendering various flora, fauna, or figures...



...as models in creating a work as complex as an illuminated manuscript. Something similar to these examples of calligraphy and imagery collaged into compositions may have even served as a rough mock-up or proto-codex in preparation for the final book. The stringent demands placed upon the workshop artists for major illuminated manuscripts can be clearly witnessed by the quality of the works rejected, as in this unfinished/abandoned folio page:



The Shahnameh of Tabriz is the most brilliant realization of the Persian book arts. No other book comes near to its level of polish, refinement and decorativeness. The work is the most stunning merger of painting, design, and calligraphy in the service of the singular masterwork of Persian poetry. Any number of the individual folio miniatures certainly rank among the finest examples of Persian painting… of painting in general. Among the most splendid miniatures one might wish to look particularly to The Court of Gayumars:



This painting is the culmination of the Turkoman style, and echoes many of the most striking elements of Rustam Sleeping while Rakhsh Fights the Lion. Both works show the influence, if not the hand of the painter, Sultan Muhhamad. The Court of Gayumars is considered by many to be the greatest of Persian manuscript paintings. The painting represents Gayumars, the first king of Persia, who ruled from the mountaintops and in whose presence the wild beasts became meek as lambs. Gayumars is seen sitting atop his mountain before a backdrop of flowering trees silhouetted against a gilded sky. He looks down mournfully at his son, Siyamak, who will be killed in battle with the Black Div. Beneath him his courtiers stand organized in a circular manner around a center of leafy, luxuriant vegetation. The court is bracketed by further exuberant flora and vividly colored rocks which burst forth from the limits of the rectangular frame.

The contributions to the Shahnameh of the painter, Sultan Muhammad are further seen in several other equally magnificent paintings beyond the possible attribution of the aforementioned tour de force (The Court of Gayumars). Among these is the splendid painting of Hushang Discovering Fire:



Like The Court of Gayumars this painting is unmatched in its vigorous portrayal of sensuous flora and fauna. The work also exploits a similar circular/organic organization of the figures beneath the central figure of Hushang.

An equally marvelous painting (also possibly employing the hand of Sultan Muhammad) that repeats the sumptuous and organic Turkoman style is the painting Rustam, aided by his Horse, Rakhsh, Slays a Dragon:



Here we find a Chinese-inspired dragon writhes in a serpentine knot as he wrestles with Rustam’s trusty steed, while the great warrior strikes the death blow with his sword. This arabesque of action takes place in a brilliantly colored and opulent landscape where the very fauna and the swirling clouds repeat the twisting and snaking motion of the central drama. The color alone would certainly inspire jealousy in such masters of color as Matisse, Bonnard, or Gauguin.

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