Persian miniatures illustrated historic manuscripts

NEW YORK – Persian miniatures are small, highly detailed paintings that illuminate historic manuscripts. Their designs, worked on handmade, cotton-rag paper, feature colorful, mineral pigments bound in gum Arabic. They have kept their vibrant colors because, like medieval illuminated vellum manuscripts, they were part of books kept closed for centuries.

This fine art reached the Persian Empire, a cultural crossroads associated with modern-day Iran, during the Islamic Conquest (A.D. 600-900). After medicinal manuscripts, featuring ornamental calligraphy and simple illuminations, were translated from Arabic, Persian miniaturists illustrated them.

Islamic Art Timurid miniature painting from a Shāh-nāmeh depicting Nufel against Laila’s tribe Iran, possibly Herāt, 15th century, 16.00 x 23.50cm including frame. Realized
€500 ($541) + buyer’s premium in 2020. Image courtesy of Capitoliumart s.r.l. and LiveAuctioneers

Throughout Islamic dominance, Persians strove to preserve their ancient culture and identity. The monumental Shāh-nāmeh (Book of Kings), created by poet Ferdowsi, culminated this endeavor. This Persian-language epic, with 60,000 rhyming couplets and hundreds of fine miniatures, celebrates the country’s cultural character, Zoroastrian religion and mythical, legendary and romanticized past.

Through the next millennia, though Persia was repeatedly beset by foreign powers, wealthy patrons commissioned copies. Some survive.

Persian miniatures became a significant art form during Seljuk-Turkish rule (1037–1194). Many, edged by ornamental, Islamic-style vegetal and geometrical patterns, portrayed youthful, Asian-type faces featuring slanted eyes, rosebud mouths and braided hair.

Depiction of the ‘Fire Ordeal of Siyavush’ from a Shāh-nāmeh; ink, colors and gilt on heavy paper, early 17th century, 12¾ x 7in. Realized $3,800 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Tremont Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the Mongol conquest decades later, invaders not only slaughtered Persians and decimated their cities. They also destroyed innumerable illustrated manuscripts. Yet as the Mongols pushed eastward, examples of traditional Chinese narrative painting reached Persia. Local miniaturists soon created similar curved-line, delicately tinted, feathery designs featuring auspicious lotus, peony, phoenix and dragon motifs.

Though Persian miniature style was linear, artists also developed the concept of a parallel perspective. In other words, by creating multiple planes and layering their elements, their two-dimensional designs projected three-dimensions. Appropriately, these reflected the multilayered nuances of their traditional, calligraphic, poetic texts.

“From the historic viewpoint,” explains Iran Review, “an independent, nongovernmental and nonpartisan website,” “the most important evolution in Iranian art … has been the adoption of Chinese designs and coloring, which were mixed with the specific conception of Iranian artists.”

From ‘The King and the Ambassadors’ manuscript, gouache, ink, gilt details on paper, 16th century, 9 x 5¼in framed. Realized $900 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

As dynasties rose and fell, distinctive Persian miniature styles emerged, often differing from major city to city. Prestigious workshops in Tabriz, capital of the Timurid Dynasty (late 1300-1400s), for example, favored smaller, elongated, expressionless figures clad in Chinese-style armor or silk garments. Many, set against subtly colored landscapes or all-over designs, are depicted on multiple planes.

Miniatures created in Shiraz, also under Timurid rule, were known for vivid palettes, expansive landscapes and expressive mystical and romantic themes framed by freely drawn natural motifs. Additionally, their designs often feature a new practice of vertical perspective—layering figures one over the other. Distant objects appear at their top; near ones appear at their base.

Persian War scene featuring nasta’liq script, paper, 23 x 19cm, 19th-20th century. Realized €600 + ($683) buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Oriental Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Through the 1400s, miniatures from Herāt, now in Afghanistan, featured naturalistic plant and animal images, along with scenery and human figures on varying planes. Despite multiple viewpoints and three-dimensional, hexagonal depictions of planar pavilions, they are unified by homogenous lines and coloring. In fact, many consider Herāti miniatures the pinnacle of Persian painting.

Because Persian miniatures were traditionally created in workshops through divisions of labor, most cannot be traced to specific artists. Yet those featuring particularly expressive characters, narrative creativity, dark-light naturalism and simple spaces edged by grid-like architectural sections, for example, have been attributed to (or created under the direction of) the Herāti master miniaturist, Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād.

Illumination from the Shāh-nāmeh, Ferdusi, describing the reign of Alexander the Great, 20.5 x 27.5 cm, 17th century, possibly Shiraz. Realized €1,900 ($2,382) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Florence Number Nine srl and LiveAuctioneers

After the fall of the Timurid Dynasty, Behzād worked under the Safavid Empire (1501-1736) in Tabriz, then in Isafan. Since manuscript illustration enjoyed royal patronage during the late Safavid era, Reza Abbasi depicted finely drawn royal courts, palaces, nobility, as well as dynamic battles and hunting scenes in sumptuous shades of gold. Many of his works, instead of illustrating costly poetic manuscripts, were created as single-page paintings for personal albums. Since these were shown privately, scores, instead of depicting discreet, Islamic-style illustrations, were far more suggestive.

Though miniatures retained the Persian spirit through the subsequent Qajar Dynasty (1794-1925), they often featured European-style shading and perspective. Hossein Behzad and Mohammad Gaffari Kamal-ul-Molk are noted Qajar miniaturists. Persian teahouse miniatures, simple, free-drawn paintings of religious stories and epics by untrained painters on cloth and walls, also arose during this era. Mahmoud Farshchian, who combines classic Persian forms with new techniques, is a contemporary Persian miniature master.

Shāh-nāmeh, Ferdowsi, featuring nasta’liq script, with Persian export stamps to text (A.D. 1890/91), paneled with calf vellum (A.D. 1823-24) 360 x 220mm, Iran. Realized £6,500 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of
Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to a professional preservationist, “Exposure to ultraviolet light starts and accelerates all types of deterioration in materials that make up miniature paintings. Due to their starch-paste sizing, they are also prone to damage from insects and high humidity, So, ideally, these treasures should be stored in dry, dark places, either in folders or matted and boxed. The best way to preserve them is not to display them at all.”

Yet she adds, “I’ve hung my own matted, framed Persian miniatures in a dark hallway against an interior wall of my house. To enjoy them, I turn on the light.”