Miniature Painting of the Middle Eastern Arabic School of Miniature

Issue #2 • 768

Zuhra Rahimova, Art Critic

The medieval miniature painting of the Arab countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt, holds a special place among the painting schools in the Middle East and the Central Asia. Along with the Persian school it is considered as one of the most significant and earliest schools of painting; it was opening a brilliant tradition of the illustration of the hand-written books in the medieval Islamic East.
The heyday of the Arab school of miniature falls at the end of the XII and the first half of the XIII century. After the conquest of Iraq by the Mongols in 1258, the development of the miniature stops for some time in this country, but then it revives with renewed vigor during the reign of Iraqi dynasty of Jalayirids (1339-1410).
In the VII–VIII centuries the Arabs – inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, had conquered the territories of the Middle East and the Central Asia, the South Caucasus, part of India, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. That is how the Caliphate has originated – a strong theocratic early feudal militarized state governed by a Caliph. Islam has become the dominant religion and the Arabic was the official language in the conquered countries. The original capital during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) was Damascus in Syria, and then Baghdad under the Abbasids (750-1258).
The Arabs have created their unique style of painting, which harmoniously combined the late Antique realism, colorful Byzantine palette and, despite a number of conventions characteristic of the medieval mindset, the truthful representation of human images.
Egypt was the most ancient center of the production of book miniatures in the Arab East. In the era of the pharaohs the illustrations to the numerous copies of “The Book of the Dead” were created there. They were painted by quill in a plane manner, which were close to wall paintings in the ancient Egyptian tombs. In the early Middle Ages the art of miniature has been continued by the Copts – Egyptian Christians. In the IV-VII centuries AD, book miniatures were one of the leading types of the Coptic art. The Coptic artists have developed their own specific artistic language, paving the way for the rise and flourishing of this art in Egypt in the advanced Middle Ages, while the shape of medieval Coptic manuscripts in the form of the bound notebooks – the code and techniques of their decoration that were similar to the books of the late antiquity, have formed the basis of the Arab miniature painting of subsequent centuries.
A characteristic feature of the Egyptian miniatures is their plainness, symbolic depiction of the environment and human figures, the lack of space, the horizontal symmetry of composition, the desire to ornamental representation of human beings and animals, which transforms the entire composition into some ornamental pattern. Picturing the golden halos over the heads of the main characters, which represent a decorative item in this context, makes them similar to the Christian Byzantine and Syrian art.
An important center of Arab miniatures was Syria as well, which in the VII century has been conquered by the Arabs. Previously it was a part of the Byzantine Empire. Syria played a major role in the development of culture and art of the Caliphate under the Umayyads, contributing to the spread of philosophical and ethical ideas and scientific heritage of Antiquity and Hellenism. Syria as a part of the Caliphate, like other states, has participated in formation of the Arab culture, and the miniature painting, in particular. The first Arab artists-miniaturists were the Nestorian Syrians, and via them the Byzantine illustrative traditions were directly transferred to the Arabic painting. Examples of this are the miniatures of the manuscript – “Pharmacology” by Dioscorides, reminiscent of the miniatures of the Byzantine Gospels depicting the evangelists. Yet in the Syrian manuscripts their images are replaced by the figures of the ancient physicians and pharmacists, which usually depict one or two characters – a teacher and a disciple. Dioscorides, just as the evangelists in Byzantine iconography, is depicted either sitting in a gorgeous wicker chair against the background of the architectural arch with two twisted columns, or with a disciple, to whom he explains the properties of the plants. There is a halo over his head similar to those of the Christian saints, adding sacredness to his image. A distinctive feature of the Syrian miniatures is a golden background, balance and harmony of composition (1229, Topkapi Palace. Istanbul). If in the miniatures of early Syrian manuscripts there were still a lot of details similar to Byzantine painting, in the manuscript – “The selected wise sayings and beauties of the speaker” by Mubashir, the adaptation of the Byzantine methods, as well as the features of the emerging Arab style can be noticed. In the miniatures, the ancient sages – Socrates, Solon, Aristotle and others are depicted conversing with their disciples against the background of conventional landscape or interior. The variety of poses, rich facial expressions and expressive gestures, a bright blush of the cheeks are the features characteristic of the portrayal of people in the Syrian miniature of the mid-thirteenth century, people dressed in the gaudy and spacious Arab robes. A swirling folds of the clothes are decorative and, at the same time, add to the figures some sort of volume. In the miniatures of the above mentioned manuscripts there are no more golden halos over the heads of the characters (Topkapi Palace). Interesting are the miniatures to the manuscript “Kalila and Dimna” (1200-1220, Paris), where the animals and the birds are vividly and expressively depicted against the background of monumental and decorative plants.
A major center of the Arab miniatures was Iraq, which in the Middle Ages occupied the territory of Mesopotamia, therefore the name of the school is Iraqi, the Arab-Mesopotamian or Baghdad – after the name of the capital city – Baghdad. Despite the challenges that the Arabs of Mesopotamia had endured after the conquest of Baghdad, first, by the Persian dynasty of Buyids, then by Seljuks, whose invasions caused a particularly severe damage to the city that led to the subsequent seize of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, the art and literature continued to develop here, while the Mesopotamian miniature of XIII–XIV centuries have generated the most vivid examples of this art, fully reflecting the specifics and the spirit of that age.
Until recently, Mesopotamian school with its center in Baghdad was considered as almost the only one in the entire Arab East. Currently, the Mesopotamian miniature is subdivided into two schools: the North-Mesopotamian or The School of Jazeera or Mosul school with its center in Mosul, and the South-Mesopotamian with the center in Baghdad.
The School of Jazeera, or the North-Mesopotamian School, had developed at the end of the XII – XIII centuries, first under the influence of the Persian painting tradition, and then under the Seljuk traditions. The Persian dynasty of Buyids, that ruled here in the tenth century, brought in many of features distinctive of the early medieval Persian culture into the Arabic art. Jazeera artists had borrowed from the Persian painters a decorative manner (bright, pure colors – blue, red, lilac, purple, and various shades of green and pink sparkling against a golden backdrop), the exquisite subtlety of the lines, the Persian type of round faces with a heavy chin, high-raised eyebrows, a tiny mouth under the elegant nose. An example is the miniature from a manuscript “Kitab al Aghani”, 1218-1219, the National Library in Istanbul. Another important detail is a borrowed idea of the superior power. Complex multi-figure composition, exquisite colors and fine lines, interpretation of the figures and faces are similar to the patterns of the contemporary Iranian ceramics made in the technique of “Minan”.
Another version of the North Mesopotamian miniature were the illustrations to the medical treatise “Kitab at-Tiriac” (“The Book of Antidotes”) that were painted at the end of the XII century in Mosul. Their characteristic feature is combination of the multi-temporal themes in a single composition. The Jazeera artists prefer the compositions consisting of few figures and concise conditional landscape represented by the large plant and flower sprouts or the decoratively pictured trees. They are different from other local schools in the Middle East by their rich and saturated colors. The Jazeera artists used the local paints overlaying them on the sheet over the white, red or golden background that was conferring their pictures with a specific decorative effect.
Although the Jazeera school was influenced by Persian and Seljuk painting styles, based on the principle of planar decorativeness, it has its own peculiarities, typical of the Northern Mesopotamia.
The origin and development of the Baghdad style or the Southern Mesopotamian miniature school is usually associated with the art of the Byzantine, Eastern Christian area, with the Persian artistic tradition, Manichaean and Buddhist art of the Eastern Turkestan and China. However, despite their influence on the formation of the Baghdad miniature style, this school was able to develop its own pictorial language, summarizing the best achievements of the art of these regions. The illustrated South Mesopotamian manuscripts were closely related to the needs of the society at that time. First of all, the books of scientific content were illustrated: medical and astronomical treatises, philosophical essays and belle-lettres. The Quran and manuscripts of theological content were richly decorated with lavish book covers, headpieces and ornaments.
A bright example of the illustration to a scientific treatise are the miniatures “Pharmacology” of Dioscorides of 1224 made in Baghdad (it is assumed that their author could be a copyist of the manuscript by Ibn Fadel). All miniatures are painted on the yellowish paper and located in the middle of the text. They are notable for their laconic composition, flatness, a small number of figures, clear outlines, and bright colors. All plants, depicted in the manuscript, are painted quite verisimilar, in spite of the conventionality of style. The miniature shows the process of preparation of the medicines – starting from plant collection to their application. Representation of multi-temporal events in a single composition is a characteristic of medieval art. The golden halos over the heads is a technique used in the Christian art to show the holiness of a character, here have purely decorative purpose.
If the miniatures to the scientific treatises primarily had educative function, the illustrations to the artistic prose of the Baghdad school differed by amusing stories, variety of events that reflected the life of the time. The beautiful miniatures were created to the maqamas of the popular Arab writer – Al Hariri. The name of the genre was derived from the word ‘maqama’ – the meeting of the citizens of different classes, where there were the conversations, discussions, contests in eloquence, wit and ingenuity. The names of the themes used to be given according to the place of action, which usually happened during the rest of the caravan in the desert, on the market square, in the courtyard of the mosque or in the house of the judge, – where there could be the listeners. The main character of the maqamas of Al Hariri was Abu Zeid as-Surudji – a crook, a vagabond, a wisecracker, who did not hesitate to cheat on his listeners and even steal from them. This character reminds of Aldar Kose or Khoja Nasreddin. Another character, on behalf of whose name the story was narrated, usually was a merchant travelling with his merchandise from one town to another, where he was meeting an eloquent crook. The format of the maqamas was building on the dialogue of these two characters. The attractiveness of the plot and anecdotal situation in maqama was also an occasion to raise the most poignant issues of society, expressed in the form of an intimate conversation.
The miniatures from the collection of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences (St. Petersburg) and the National Library in Paris are recognized as the most successful illustrations of the ten surviving manuscripts of maqamas. The Paris manuscript of 1237 was performed by Yahya Ibn Mahmoud al-Wasati – the famous artist of the Baghdad school of miniatures in the first half of the XIII century, a native of the city of Wasat. The miniatures by Yahya Ibn Mahmud to the maqamas depict the scenes out of the everyday life of citizens: bustling bazaars, mosques, courtyards, palaces of the rulers, and the villages. A great master of composition, in a small space of the page of paper he could accommodate a caravan of pilgrims, camels, horses and banners, vividly expressing the noise and the rumble produced by the trumpeters and drummers (“Ramli Maqama”). Al-Wasati is also a great master of landscape. Reality and fiction are amazingly intertwined in his compositions (“A Fairy Island”, “The Entrance into the Village”, “A Sailing Ship”). The artist skillfully depicts also various representatives of the society of that epoch (“A Village near Mosul”, “Barqid Maqama”, “Arrasian Maqama”). The artist is distinguished by an artful portrayal of facial expressions, appropriate to certain situation – surprise, amazement, menacing, and disappointment. All these feelings are expressed also by the bend of the head, mimic and eyes. They are emphasized by the expressive “talking” hand gestures particular to the Arab world. Their meaning, depending on position of the hands and fingers in different everyday situations, meant humiliation (dropped hands), request (outstretched palms), respect or fear (folded or hidden hands). The hand on the chin meant meditation, while the hands pressed to the head – sadness. The palm turned toward the listener meant the transfer of information, knowledge. Finger on lips – surprise, outstretched finger – advice, as on the miniature to the “Alexandrian Maqama”, which depicts Abu Zeid and his wife complaining about him to a judge. Wasati as well masterfully depicts the animals and their emotions. In the “Kurdji Maqama”, the eyes and the ears of a donkey express extreme astonishment at the sight of a naked Abu Zeid.
The Baghdad artists used the same pigments that Jazeera artists in the color scheme of the miniatures, but unlike the latter they were blending the paints and mixing them on the palette. This technique was borrowed by the Baghdad painters from the Byzantine and Eastern Christian artists.
The Miniature of the Mongolian period. In 1258, the territory of Mesopotamia was conquered by the Mongols, led by Hulagu Khan. The Mongol dynasty of the Hulaguids ruled the region until the middle of the XIV century. It was replaced by the Mongol dynasty of Jalayirids (1339-1410), whose founder – Hasan Buzurg, in 1339 had captured Baghdad, and his successor, Awais I, in 1360 has conquered Tabriz. The Jalayirids ruled simultaneously in Baghdad and Tabriz, and thus the achievements of the Tabriz artists have been adopted by the craftsmen of Baghdad. The albums – muraqqa, being housed in Istanbul and Berlin, have been preserved from the early period of the Baghdad miniature during the reign of Sultan Awais I (1356-1374). By the mid-1370s, the artists of Baghdad have created a new style, which determined the subsequent search in this direction.
New florescence of the Baghdad miniature occurred during the reign of Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410), who, after the conquest of Tabriz by Timur in 1386, has moved to Baghdad. A self-willed ruler, ruthless in the struggle for power, he, at the same time, was a generous philanthropist and a highly educated fan of poetry, music and painting. Ahmad Jalayir has encouraged the further development of the art of miniature in his Baghdad workshop, perfecting and refining the art finds of his predecessors: the technique of vertical composition, the iconography of the plots and the main characters, defining a lyrical tendency in the interpretation of the characters and scenes (“Khamsa” by Nizami, 1386 and 1388, London, The British Library), formation of the iconography in the miniature – “Sultan Sanjar and the Old Woman”. The miniatures to the works of Mesnevi (“Three poems”), Hadja Kermani (1396) signed by Junayda Sultani, made in the reign of Sultan Ahmad, are the best proves of the achievements in the Baghdad miniature of the late fourteenth century. They are transmitting a new concept of the multi-faceted compositions, expanded vertically and creating the illusion of deep space, a new perception of a human being, who becomes a part of the nature, a harmony of colors, at the same time using the same bright and resonant colors.
Among the works of the workshop of Sultan Ahmad, a special place belongs to the “Diwan”, a collection of poems that were written by the ruler himself (1406-1410, Freer Gallery, Washington). Eight of the 337 pages of the collection contain pictures drawn on the margins. Most experts believe that they were painted by the court artist – Abd al-Hay. Some biographical data about this artist have been preserved. Presumably, he was born in 1374, and died in Samarkand in 1405. According to the historian of Safavid period, Doust Muhammad, Abd-al Hay was a disciple of Shams ad-Din during the reign of Sultan Awais I of Jalayirid dynasty, and later he has become the painter at the court of Sultan Ahmad, whom he was teaching to paint. When Timur has occupied Baghdad, he sent him to Samarkand, where the artist lived for the rest of his life and headed the library of Timur, he also created the murals in his palaces.
The poetry of Ahmad Jalayir is very hard to illustrate, but Abd-al Hay has managed to convey the mystical mood of the author in traditional Sufi metaphors, like angels, lovers, strangers, landscape, founding a pictorial symbolism of Sufi literature in the monochrome realistic ink drawings. After the death of Abd al-Hay, none of the miniaturists could surpass his painting style, except Behzad and several Safavid artists of the XVI century, such as Sultan Muhammad or Mir Seyid Ali.
The Arab miniature painting of the XII–XIII centuries, and later on of the XIV century is a significant phenomenon among the schools of miniature in the Middle East and the Central Asia, distinguished by bright specifics of artistic imagery, folklore roots and an indescribable charm. Using both local traditions and some features borrowed from the Byzantine and Iranian art, it has developed its own unique style, a variety of compositional schemes used by five subsequent generations of artists of the East that had a huge impact on the art of the handwritten books in the centuries to follow.

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