Persian Manucscripts part 1

Hello! Now that I’m reasonably free of schoolwork and need to spend less time on a certain website, I’m getting this blog back on track. As part of a general program of more non-Italophilic material, I’m starting a short little series on Persian manuscript painting. We’ll start by looking at the Demotte or Great Mongol Shahnama as an example of the Illkhanid period work in this post. The next three posts will be on the later Ilkhanid and Timurid schools, then on Bihzhad, and then a concluding post on the Houghton Shahama

Iskandar and The Talking Tree. From the Great Mongol or Demotte Shahnama. Tabriz, c. 1330-40. Freer Gallery, Washington

A note on the name: This leaf comes from the so-called Demotte Shahnama, which was cut up and suffered a variety of other indignities* by that art dealer in the late 19th cetury and the surviving leaves wound up in various institutions. Because of this, some scholars prefer to call the manuscript the Great Mongol Shahnama. I tend to call it the Demotte Shahanama, mostly because it’s faster to say/type.

This paticular illustration is of Iskandar (Alexander the Great, who occupies a remarkably prominent place in the Shahanama). This image in part draws on extant persian and mongol artwork. The moon face (oval, small mouth, almond eyes) of Iskandar and the other two figures
*fun fact: It took a conference in the 1980s to realize that the text of some leaves didn’t have images matching text. Turns out our friend Demotte moved images onto image-less leaves so he’d have more to sell.

Now there are two especially noteworthy features of this image. The first is the face of Alexander, and of the two male figures. The notable almond eyes, small mouth, and oval face are features of the moon-face that is the conventional ideal of beauty in mideval persian art. It’s fairly standard on bowls. Related to this is the comparative simplicity of the landscape, which is much less detailed and subtilzed as later Timurid and Savafid landscapes would be. The other notable thing is that there is a landscape. We don’t see  one in early painted pottery and we don’t see one in the only surviving pre-Illkhanid manuscript, a Varqa wa Gusha now in Istanbul( Topkapi MS. 841, if you are curious). My guess is that the landscape came in from chinese influences. Certainly the Chinese painters were held in great esteem(along with the Rumi painters). There are fairly clear chinese features in the rocks and to some extent in the tree trunk; other manuscripts are even more strongly Chinese-flavored. This introduction had a major effect on Persian painting; it seems to my untrained eye to have united illustration and depiction in a way that had happened in the Maqamat illustrations for the Baghdadi school. At this moment, the little page stands out as striving for the monumental in a way that is also distinct from what will come later in the Timurid period.

NEXT: The Timurids and their sucessor states.


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