Battle-piece Genre in the Creative Work of Kamaletdin Behzad

Issue #3-4 • 1539

In 2005 the population of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall celebrate the 550th anniversary of Kamaletdin Behzad, the unsurpassed master of Eastern miniature of the 15th century, the best of the best painters according to Zakhriddin Babur.

The creative work of the great Heart miniature painter, Kamaletdin Behzad, seemed to have been comprehensively studied, but any time one starts consider his works, he opens new and new faces in them. One of such is his battle topics.

In the Heart school of miniature painting of the last quarter of the 15th century to which K.Behzad belonged, many genres including court, everyday, hunting and portrait paintings were splendidly developed. If much has been written about his portraits and court scenes, the battle genre has remained insufficiently researched although just the battle scenes most fully reveal the restless spirit of the Timuride’s epoch.

Armed conflicts and hot duels used to be the favorite theme of the medieval miniaturists; they most brightly reflected their times, full of internal wars and aggressive campaigns. Battle genre illustrations to the heroic epos (‘Shah-nama’ by Firdousi), historical works praising feats of arms of the rulers (‘Jami at-tavarih’ by Rashid-ad-din, ‘Zafar-namah’ by Sharaf ad-din Iezdi, ‘Temur-nama’ by Khatefi and others) attracted the artists by giving the chance to redisplay their mastership in composition. In addition, depiction of shah or khan as an unsurpassed commander was an integral aspect of the iconographic image of the ruler requested by the requirements of the Eastern Muslim etiquette (1).

During the period of strengthening and development of this genre, beginning with the 1st century, and especially during the Timuride’s epoch, the leading centers of miniature painting in Tabriz and Shiraz worked out a number of iconographic composition schemes. Among them are those most fully depicting the character of wars: battle of enemy armies, siege of a fortress, (witnessed or unwitnessed) duel of foot warriors or cavalrymen and enemy hunt, became fixed and continued to develop. Creation of the impressive picture of battle was the main task of the medieval battle painters. That is why the confrontation of the combating armies with the duels of the principal heroes in the middle or the battle itself were the leading composition versions. Later on in the Tabriz and Shiraz miniatures of the second half of the 14th century, the artist’s strive to include as many personages as possible and show the broad picture of the battle brings home complication of the composition. Action of the miniature goes beyond the sheet; movement goes cornerwise attaching special dynamics to a scene (2, ill. 47-49). Formation of the battle genre finalizes in the middle of the 15th century in Heart. Amazing in their beauty multi-figured compositions full of subtly noticed details were created that time.

With particular pleasure the artists depict various postures of the combating people or moving animals. Depiction of the military orchestra musicians that accompanied any battle giving necessary signals and encouraging the combatants with the drum-roll and rattle of the kettle-drums becomes the inseparable part of the composition of any war scene.

When depicting battle lots in the Eastern miniature, the artists were least interested in showing distinctions in the uniform, equipment and armaments of the combating detachments. They did not show any ethnic distinctions as well. If the battle took place long ago, the in the remote historical past, the miniaturists had never marked any historical signals of those times showing the event as if it were taking place in his epoch by dressing them his contemporary costumes. Usually composition was built up as a battle scene, and in the opinion of the viewers, small groups of combating soldiers were personifying the whole armies. Battle tension was shown through the battle of isolated groups of foot warriors and horsemen, and one could only compositionally identify the winner. Fortunately found images, most brightly and expressively depicting typical activity of the warriors were becoming canonic and repeated from miniature to miniature with little variations – horsemen threatening one another with a sword or a club, or piercing the enemy with a spear (Rashid ad-din ‘Jami at-tavarih’, Edinburgh) (3, ill. 39-57), or a cavalry thrusting a dagger against the back of the chased enemy (‘Shah-name’ Firdousi Topcopi Serai) (4), or a warrior shooting a bow galloping on a horse. To emphasize military anxiety, artists often depicted parts of chopped up bodies scattered about.

By the time of Behzad’s creation, the Eastern miniature had accumulated great abs various iconographic material in the illustration of battle themes. However, the great role in the further development of battle genre belongs to Behzad, despite the fact that it does not occupy a very significant place in his creative work.

Battle themes with Behzad are known to us due to the several miniatures in the following manuscripts:

1. ‘Zafar-namah’ by Sharaf ad-din Ali Iezdi rewritten in year 872 of hijra/1467-68 by the calligraphy Sher Ali (Baltimore. J.Harret’s Library). There are 6 double miniatures, of which diptychs are on the battle themes. In the opinion of the researchers, the miniatures were painted by Behzad some time later after rewriting in 1485 – 90 (5, fig. 64-68).

2. ‘Hamsa’ by Nizami, rewritten in year 846 of hijra/1442 (London. The British Library), contains 19 miniatures, one of which is of the same time as the manuscript itself (sheet 41a’), and others were made later, probably between 1490 and 1535. Three of them (on sheets 1216, 161a` and 2316) possess Behzad’s signature. Two miniatures signed by Behzad depict the battle scene (sheet 1216 and 231a’) (5, pls. XXX-XXXI).

Illustrations to Iezdi’s ‘Zafar-namah’ present the early examples of battle scenes in Behzad’s heritage. In the miniature ‘Umar Sheikh Besieging Urgench’ (sheet 114a`-115 b) (6, fig. 64-68), the action deploys from the right to the left. Detachment headed by Demur’s son is driving desperately resisting the Khorezmians towards the fortress that is shown on the next page. Despite this both sheets look like an entire whole. The first miniature depicts the triumphant march of Temur’s detachment headed by Umar Sheikh who is in the middle galloping the horse in a tiger horsecloth seemingly pointing at his epic heroic strength, and wearing the green caftan (associated with the descendants of the Prophet). Umar Sheikh is marked out by a turban with the egret-plume, other warriors are wearing helmets. He is holding emir’s horse-tail in his hands, there is a military orchestra at the back as was due to the son of the ruler, and a standard bearer. Umar Sheikh is also a central figure by composition: cavalries rushing in a semi-circular around him seem to emphasize his significance. The action is continued in the next sheet: followed by the enemies, the Khorezmeans are entering the fortress gates by a lowered drawbridge; fortress defenders are shooting at the pursuers from the top parapet showing stubborn resistance to them. Behzad depicts common people among the besieged – one of them is wearing a nomad‘s dress and shooting the bow, another one, a black man, is throwing a huge stone on the heads of the enemies.

The next diptych, ‘Umar Sheikh attacking Amateur’s Army’ (sheet 174a’-175a`) (6, fig. 32-33) shows how the army of Umar Sheikh that camped on the bank of the Amydarya River crossed the river and all of a sudden attacked the enemy that camped on the opposite bank. In this miniature Behzad also reveals his attention to possible details. It is not the battle itself but the story about war that is important for him. While showing the details, the author depicts how Umar Sheikh’s are embarking the rafts; others are already floating struggling with the violent current. To underline this feeling, the artist paints the indented line of the bank, the raft is aslant, and the horses submerge up to the necks.

The third double miniature from this manuscript dedicated to a battle theme depicts ‘Pursuit of the Kipchak Army’ (sheet 282b – 283a`) (6, fig. 34-35) presents the scene when the Kipchaks turned out by Temur from the Nergiz town in Georgia are hiding in the caves of the neighboring mountains. There is a detachment beating its way through a difficult region of cliffs on the right side of the miniature. It is an excellent composition by coloring, rhythm and minor details. There are only a few personages in the miniature; the figure that is cut off by the frame seems to be the indication of a plentiful army. The next sheet contains the picture of steep mountains emphasizing the difficulty of the struggle against the enemy hiding in the mountainous caves. Here again Behzad cannot resist the temptation to tell us in detail how the people descended the mountains in chapars (big baskets). We see great tension in the mimics and gestures of the warriors and the builders (Temur is known to take such a detachment with him when campaigning) lowering on thick ropes heavy baskets with people trying to reach the enemy in his shelter with swords and arrows.

And the last diptych on the battle theme is ‘Temur’s Siege of the Smyrna Fortress’ (sheet 449a’-450a`) (6, fig. 38-39) that seems to be the most dynamic scene in the manuscript. It tells us about the siege of Smyrna in 1402. Knights of St. settled in the fortress John showed desperate resistance, and Temur’s victory did not come easily. Behzad turned the scene of siege into a bright event satiated with multiple realistic details. Temur is depicted in the right lower part of the composition riding high and listening to the report on the course of action. His soldiers are furiously shooting their bows and arbalests at the sieges settling on the top of the tower. Like previous miniatures, this one is gorgeous in its coloring and mastership.

On the whole in his illustrations to ‘Zafar-namah’ Behzad applies the findings and techniques of his predecessors, namely: figure of the rider piercing the back of the enemy with the lance (sheet 114a’), or half back turned rider hiding behind a round shield (sheet 1446), but he varies them showing daring perspectives such as a cavalryman coming out of the river as if looked from above (sheet 175 b and sheet 450a`), or the one shooting a bow in the upper corner (sheet 449a’). However, treatment of plots and compositional solution of all scenes present the original findings of the author and have no analogs in the pre-Behzad painting.

In the work ‘Battle of Clans’ (‘Hamsa’ by Nizami) kept with the British Library and painted probably in 1490, we see a laconic, brilliantly arranged picture of the battle on camels (6, fig. 64).

The iconographic type of this plot existed already in the first half of the 15th century. Let us compare the miniatures with the analogous plots from the manuscript ‘Hamsa’ by Nizami of 835 H.y. /1431 (The State Hermitage) depicting the moment of pursuit: at the foothill camel-riders are pressing the resisting enemies to the left (to the margins of the manuscript). Every tribe is shown as a compact serried group, and the tension of the battle is splendidly conveyed through the rhythm of the thrown up swords and lancers.

Behzad deviates from the traditional compositional scheme. He depicts the culmination of the battle when the winner did not yet clarify himself and, thus, catches the eye of the viewer. The action also takes place at the foothill, and Madjnun is also keeping an eye on the result of the battle from behind the hill. In a masterly fashion he conveys the battle genre by posting the figures in a circle. If the painter of the previous miniature does not pay much attention to the mimics and his personages turn out to be featureless, Behzad, on the contrary, endows each face with a specific expression. There is one more important detail – conveyance of movement. Behzad has never conveyed movement so excellently in other miniatures and even in his battle scenes. But here the circle arrangement of the figures, violent rush of the camels, bending and complicated perspectives of postures and bodies of both people and animals are filling the picture with vivid dynamics.

Behzad depicts another miniature ‘Iskander’s Battle with Dari’ (sheet 231a’), (6, fig. 68) from the same manuscript in a traditional manner as a battle scene. Like in the previous miniatures on the top he paints a rider piercing the enemy with a lance at full gallop (compared with ‘Shah-nama’ from Topcapi Serai), or another soldier with all his might slashing the running away enemy with a sword (in the center) (compared with ‘Shah-nama’ by Djuki). But he never just copies them; he interprets them in his own way by adding realistic details. Thus the rider whose back is pierced with the lance has lost his helmet, and his horse totters: this makes clear that he has lost this battle. Behzad also often repeats his own findings (the standard bearer and the drummer) or adds the subtly observed details.

Contemporaries recognized Behzad as a great painter of battle-pieces. In his works dedicated to battle scenes as well as in other genres he was perfecting his achievements of his predecessors in the field of composition and iconography, treatment of individual images or scenes. By himself he created original compositions that would have been later used by his disciples. Behzad has introduced into battle-piece painting such novelty as depiction of the everyday life at war.

His predecessors, illustrators of ‘Shah-nama’ and other battle scenes, depicted only battles: only the battle itself concerned them. Behzad in his turn was concerned with the everyday life details like fortification works, digging tunnels, armory (painting of the arbalest) and various means of defense (wooden shields). The battle scenes also attracted him by the depiction of different types and postures; he enjoys different perspectives displaying exceptional ingenuity for the medieval miniature artist constrained with canons in depiction of people and animals. All this allows assuming that the artist might have been observing the battles in the field as it was impossible to depict them so vividly, trustworthily and in such detail without seeing them with one’s own eye. Illustrations to the battle-piece themes make us give a new glance at the creative method of the great master who, despite all conventionalities of the medieval outlook, based it on his lave to the realities of life.

Zukhra Rakhimova

Pin It

Comments are closed.