Sunday, November 13, 2011

Patronage and Secular Subject Matter in Islamic Art

Islamic Art's unique artistic language can sometimes be difficult to read in terms of western iconography due to its foundations in the Islamic way of life that is guided directly by the laws of the religion.  Rarely have I witnessed information that has made the connection between Western and Islamic patrons and the art produced for them so clear as the lecture I listened to by Jerrilyn Dodds last week. My desire to communicate all the wonderful wisdom I garnered after listening to her lecture lead me down a path that was familiar yet remote at the same time, finally culminating in the Garden of Eden that I never fail to find in art.

Jerrilynn Dodds, Dean of Sarah Lawrence College has been giving a three part lecture series, Islamic Art and Society, in conjunction with the opening of the New Galleries for the art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I was lucky enough to attend the second in the series, Luxury Arts and the Art of the Book which focused on the secular elements used in the representation of Islamic kingship.  Dodds presented an interesting perspective on the patrons and the content of these works of art.

The 10th century plate with Arabic Inscription  from Iran, that greets you as soon as you enter the New Galleries was the object Dodds started her discussion with. The prosaic inscription "Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace" she mused has a Hallmark-like quality.  Dodds' interpretation of the abstract design as the desire of people wanting to be engaged intellectually was and idea that held great appeal.

The second object Dodds talked about was a oliphant Hunting Horn similar to the one on the left.  The value of the material attesting to the magnitude of the ruler and images of animate beings to his liberal understanding of Islam.  The hunting horn was decorated with hunting animals and the mythological figure, Harpy.  Dodds defined an Islamic ruler owning such an object as his right to own land, to hunt and as a reminder of these privileges to his people.  She also connected the images of animals to the myth of palace art and mentioned Arabian Nights written at the time of the Abbasids, as deliberating the rights of Kings.

Next, we touched upon the Golden Age of Islam (9th-12th century) a time for great intellectual and cultural creativity, when intellectuals had found and translated into Arabic the classical manuscripts from antiquity.  Dodds mentioned the great curiosity for science and philosophy at this time.  The richest city in the world, Baghdad,  founded by the Abbasids, was syncretic compounding Hellenistic, Christian, Persian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Hindu ideas. The following manuscripts were the visual manifestations of the connection and influence of these different cultures on Islamic culture.

Arabic Translation of the
Materia Medica of Dioscorides, 1229
Topkapi Palace, istanbul
Page from Dispersed Manuscript of an Arabic Translation
of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides,
Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, 1224, Iraq
Gallery 454

Byzantine miniature of Saint Mark,
mid to late 12th century
In conjunction with the Golden Age of Islam, there came another part of Islamic Kingship, learnedness. They learned about science and medicine from the classical manuscripts. The Manuscript of Materia Medica of Dioscorides, translated into Arabic give us a visual understanding of the level of influence all the different cultures had on the Islamic rulers.  Professor Dodds compared the gold background and the chiaroscuro seen in the manuscript that is in the Topkapi Palace collection with Byzantine miniatures. She pointed out the figures represented dressed as Arabs while the figures in the Metropolitan's manuscript having halos over their heads.

Astrolabe of 'Umar ibn Yusuf '
1291, Yemen
Gallery 454
The wisdom and innovations of the scholars extended to the development of scientific instruments as well. The Astrolabe of 'Umar ibn Yusuf ibn 'Umar ibn 'Ali ibn Rasul al-Muzaffari, made and signed by the Rasulid prince al-Ashraf, later Sultan of Yemen, is an instrument that showed the Quibla, so they could pray facing Mecca five times a day.  It was mentioned that since they were mostly a nomadic people, this was a crucially important instrument to own for Muslims.  Dodds added that all these innovations, "they gave back to the West when the West was ready to receive them."

From the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious
Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari
1315, Syria
Gallery 454
The interest in engineering prompted what Professor Dodds referred to as the Sultan's magical toys.  Al-Jazari, who we might refer to as a mechanical engineer today, built this elaborate Elephant Clock in order to celebrate the diversity of mankind. Al- Jazari used Greek (Archimedes) water principles combined with an Indian water timing device (ghati), an Indian elephant, an Egyptian phoenix, Arabian figures, a Persian carpet and Chinese dragons.  The features also symbolized countries and trade, and each animal had a myth associated with it: the elephant was a symbol of royalty, the phoenix of rebirth and life, the dragon of power and impregnability.1  The King of Diyabakir, Nasir al-Din, the Artuquid asked Al-Jazari, who was in his service to document his inventions in a manual, the 'Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices' which he completed in 1206.2

al-Wasiti, Yahya ben Mahmud Al-Hariri's Maqamat
Baghdad, 1237
(Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)
One of the greatest Arabic Illuminated manuscripts of all time, was the Maqamat Al-Hariri which was a collection of short stories by al-Hariri that were Illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti.  The hero of the stories is a character named Abu Zayd, an itinerant rascal, who lives off the world by his wits and by his knowledge, sometimes dishonestly, but who succeeds in extricating himself from difficult situations or coercing others to assent to his needs because of his incomparable use of the Arabic language.  The great appeal of these illuminations from the time of their conception is the realism in depicting everyday life from birth to death of the urban Arab middle class  world in the 13th century.

Caravan of Pilgrims traveling to Mecca,
al-Wasiti, Yahya ben Mahmud Al-Hariri's Maqamat
Baghdad, 1237
(Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)
A Literary Reunion, al-Hariri's Maqamat,
(Institute of Oriental Studies,
St. Petersburg,  Russia)

Woman with a herd of Camels,
al-Wasiti, Yahya ben Mahmud Al-Hariri's Maqamat
Baghdad, 1237
(Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)
Everything is represented in profile but especially in the Woman with a Herd of Camels the artist took realistic features of the animals like the long neck and the prehistoric head, the open mouth and awkward legs, the pompous gait and stance and recomposed these elements in a rhythmic pattern of legs, necks, humps and heads. 3  In this genre scene, Jerrilynn Dodds stated that the pattern was set in a two dimensional space with repetition, the notion of abstract design on the surface of the painting reinforced by its representation on the side of the text.  Also due to it not being a window into reality, as in Alberti's concept of art, the manuscript is supposed to have real status as writing itself and this takes the power of the image from seducing its viewer, corresponding with Islamic philosophy.  I found the lines that were drawn through the necks of the figures in the Literary Reunion, thought provoking after Dodds mentioned it and questioned if this was a way someone had thought to kill them.

Rashid al-Din Fazl-Allah, Jami al-Tavarikh
Iran, 1400
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
After the Maqamat, Dodds moved onto another fascinating manuscript, Rashid al-Din Fazl-Allah's Jami al-Tavarikh (Universal History).  Rashid al-Din, a Persian physician and vizier to the Mongol Emperor who converted to Islam, Ghazan Khan, was commissioned by the emperor to write the history of the Mongols and their dynasty which later expanded to include history of the world from Adam to their contemporary time.  This manuscript is made up of stories of contemporary life with ancient legends, myths, the story of the prophet Mohammed as well as stories of Christian and ancient history woven into the late Mongol era, as their own history.  With this ambitious project they ensured the belief in their people of the Mongols being the continuation of all the other great civilizations.  The illumination on the left is about the story of Jonah and the Whale from the bible.

Eskandar (Alexander the Great) enters the Land of Darkness,
Rashid al-Din Fazl-Allah, Jami al-Tavarikh,
Iran, 1314
(Edinburgh University Library)

In the illumination on the right, a very Mongol looking Eskandar, Alexander the Great, sends his horse forward into the swirling darkness.  Uncertainty is in the air as his followers look anxious and even two of the horses stare at each other. The flame-like protuberances on his helmet probably allude to his identification with the qur'anic figure Dhu'l-Qarnayn ('Lord, or Possessor, of Two Horns').The Chinese influence brought by the Mongols can very easily be detected in the cloud formations.

If Rashid al-Din's Jami as-Tawarikh was the history of the Mongols, the Shahnameh or the 'Book of Kings', the most important creation of New Persian Literature, was the national epic of the Iranian people.  Written by Ferdowsi, twice as long as Homer's Iliad and Odysseus taken together, it blended Iran's ancient myths and legends with accounts of major events in its past, celebrating the survival of a civilization that went back 7000 years.5  The first known illustrated copies of the Shahnameh date from the time shortly after the Mongols conversion to Islam under Ghazan Khan (1295 -1304). Ghazan and the succeeding Islamic emperors considered art patronage as a reflection of the majesty of their kingship. The emergence of Persian manuscript painting which was also the regeneration of Iran's political power under the Mongols coincides with this era.  The Shahname was a source of  pride for Iran who was recovering its territorial, political and cultural history.6   There are many copies present because commissioning opulent copies of the Shahname became almost a  royal duty.  The stories lent themselves to heroic actions, dramatic deeds and divine glory.

Iskandar (Alexander the Great) at the talking tree.
Shahnameh, Il-Khanid period, 1330- 1336
Iran, Tabriz
(Freer Gallery of Art)
Zal is sighted by a caravan
Shahnameh, Attributed to Abdul Aziz
Iran, Tabriz, Safavid Period, 1525
(Art and History Collection LTS)
Isfandiyar's Funeral Procession
from the Great Mongol Shahnama

Iran, Tabriz, 1330's
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Feast of Sada, Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp
Attributed to Sultan Muhammad,
Iran, Tabriz 1525
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
According to Jerrilynn Dodds these miniatures are a mirror of kingship, pointing out the qualities a king should possess, strength as well as cunning. There is also a sense of mysticism, the artists creating an alternate reality thorough art.  The naturalism of the plants almost to the point of being botanical does not seem to apply to the humans.  The profusion of colors, imaginative iconography and the strangely abstract quality of these manuscripts very easily being able to take the viewer into a beautiful fantasy world.

The Court of Gayumars,Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp
Iran, Safavid, 1522-1525
(Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada)
Tahmuras Defeats the Divs, 
Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp
Iran, Tabriz,  1522-1524
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Emperor's Carpet detail
Iran, second half 16th century
Gallery 462
Looking at the design of this carpet reveals the role of the miniaturist in the design of carpets, similar to the western artists designing cartoons for tapestries.   The main protagonists of the fantastical world represented on The Emperor's Carpet are the demonic creatures divs.  These can be seen in many of the miniatures as well, usually in the process of being killed.  According to legend, in order to have their lives spared, divs promised to teach man the precious art of writing.  This is how humankind learned various languages including Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Persian and Sogdian.Dodds classified all of these as a secular play-world culture.

The Safavid Prince Haidar Mirza's Entrance to Istanbul in 1590
from the Divan of Mahmud Abd al-Baki

Ottoman Iraq, Baghdad, 1590-95
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Shaikh al-Islam Discoursing to an Audience
from the Divan of Mahmud Abd al-Baki

Ottoman Iraq, Baghdad, 1590-95
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Eventually, when we got to the Ottomans, Jerrilynn Dodds made a pronouncement that was both logical and obvious- they were very organized.  She pointed out how there was a system, an easily recognizable hierarchy between the elements, clear, rational volumes making the images readable.   The most important figures are represented as the biggest and then according to their importance the figures get smaller. This actually mirrors how Ottoman society functioned where everyone had a place and even a specific form of dress, making it very easy to identify who one was dealing with, this in turn would make the reading of representational artwork easier as well.

When viewing the above miniatures with these concepts in mind, it is amusing to see that the Shaikh al-Islam (the most senior religious official similar to an archbishop) is the most important personage in the miniature on the left since his turban is huge. The hierarchy becomes even more pronounced in a military scene with all the different ranks lined up next to one another.   There are some very intriguing details that caught my attention in the above miniatures. First was the way the artist handled the tree in the Shaikh al-Islam miniature; it starts out as almost a painting or a window on the wall behind him and then comes out of the picture plane to become a part of the border decoration forming a connection between the border and the inner picture. This is a very interesting concept since in miniature painting as in illumination there are very strict rules that dictate how a page is supposed to be set up and artists are limited from realistic representation.  I like to think that in doing so, the artist used artistic license to break thorough the limiting barriers set forth.

The back view of Prince Haidar entering the city in the miniature on the right is another that merits furter investigation.  The foreshortening, the almost natural gait of the horse are little details that seem to be little secrets hiding in open sight.

Tughra of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificient,
Ottoman Turkey, Istanbul, 1555
This magnificent work of art is the very befitting signature of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The time of Suleiman's long reign in the 16th century is considered to be the zenith of Ottoman art.  Although the names of most illuminators or miniaturists do not survive, we have the names of some of the extraordinary talents that were working in the nakkashane (palace artists' atelier) in Topkapi Palace around this time. The naturalistic floral designs used in the decoration of the Tughra were an innovation that was introduced by Kara Memi who was the head of the nakkashane.  Each area illuminated contains different forms and styles - rumi, hatayi (floral), halic (the circular flower motif)- that artists utilized in the manuscript illuminations from this period.

It is said that   "The Qur'an was revealed in Mecca, Read in Cairo and Written in Istanbul."   - this particular quote I think, explains the prominence of Ottoman calligraphy and illumination in Islamic art.  Of course, it is impossible to ignore the influence of Tabriz since the artists from the area immigrated to Istanbul after the conquest of Selim I, of the city in 1514.  Another story from history that sheds light on the high regard with which the Ottomans held the art of the book, is that Selim I (Suleiman's father) who was known for his fierceness was said to have held his calligraphy master's ink pot while he worked.

Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Mehmed II, 1480
dated 25 November 1480
(The National Gallery, London)
Sultan Mehmet II Smelling a Rose
Ahmed Siblizade, 1480
(Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Istanbul)

Gentile Bellini painted this portrait of Sultan Mehmet II during a 'state-sponsored" visit to Istanbul.  Sultan Mehmet is portrayed  under a marble arch, a universal symbol of triumph appropriate for the Sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. The fictive framework within the painting, although not of any consequence for the Ottoman court artists, demonstrates Gentile's ability to creates a three dimensional space, one of the primary virtues of Italian Renaissance painting. 8 It is very interesting to compare this portraits side by side with the miniature from the same period by the Ottoman court painter Ahmed Siblizade and pick out the influences as well as the differences in their respective approaches to the same sitter.  While the Belini represents the consummate ruler with allusions to the lands he ruled in the form of the golden crowns lined up around him, the jewel encrusted cloth hanging over the parapet, and a bored expression on his face, the Ottoman miniature has the conqueror of the capital of the Byzantine empire smelling a rose.

Alexander visits the Sage Plato, from Khamsa (Qunitet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi,
attributed to Basawan, Pakistan, Lahore, 1597-98
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Next we come to India and the Islamic Mughal dynasty. The fourth book of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi's reprise of Nizami's Khamsa, is The Mirror of Alexander,which are mythic  tales from Alexander's life.  In this manuscript produced for the emperor Akbar, who is attributed as being the first great Mughal patron of the arts, Alexander takes on the visage of a Mughal emperor.  Jerrilynn Dodds pointed out during her lecture that there is a sense of space and depth in this work that is mostly lacking in Islamic miniatures as well as atmospheric perspective up in the top part of the picture.   The unique Mughal style of painting is due to Akbars founding a royal atelier from which he commissioned numerous illuminated manuscripts  baring influences of Persian, Indian and even European elements. Persian, Indian Muslim, and Hindu artists worked together to form the particular Mughal style which was further developed in the 17th century.9

Portrait of Shah Jahan on Horseback
India, 17th Century
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Portrait of Shah Jahan on Horseback
:Leaf from the Shah Jahan album
attributed to Payag, 1628
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The unique style of painting initiated during the reign of Akbar developed into a more naturalistic style worked out using European artistic techniques like perspective and chiaroscuro by the 17th century.   Looking at the two portraits of Shah Jahan that Jerrilynn Dodds referred to as passage portraits, it is interesting to note the horse and the flora rendered naturalistically while the surface is still left flat.  Unlike earlier Islamic miniatures which were the illustrations for an accompanying text, these studies seem to be individualized portraits. One of the most prominent feature of these portraits is the use of distinct Western iconography; I just love the halos around Shah Jahan's head and the putti that seem so familiar in such an unexpected context.

Over centuries of existing with and absorbing other cultures, Islamic patrons as well as artists seem to have found a visual vocabulary of their own that exists within the restriction placed on the representation of living beings.   The boundaries set before them seems to have set them on a path toward abstraction and an incredibly imaginative pictorial language.  Dodds has a very elegant explanation for these boundaries as the way to eviscerate being seduced by images in order to reach the divine.  Finally, Jerrilynn Dodd's closing remark is one I take to heart and feel explains not just the reasoning of abstraction in Islamic representation but also my personal philosophy -  "Most profound personal truths can be found only intellectually."

1  Al Hassani, Salim T. S., Elizabeth Woodcock, and Rabah Saoud. "The Elephant Clock." 1001 Inventions:  Muslim Heritage in Our World. 2nc ed. Manchester, Great Britain:  Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, 2007. 16. Print
2  Ibid., 316
3  Grabar, Oleg. Islamic Visual Culture, 1100-1800. Aldershot, England:  Ashgate/Variorum. 2006.  Print
4  "The Fitzwilliam Museum :  An Explosion of Images." The Fitzwilliam Museum : Home. Web. 11 Nov. 2011 <>
5  Ibid., <>
6  Ibid., <>
7  Welch, Stuart C. "78 Pictures from a World of Kings, Heroes, and Demons:  The Houghton Shah-nameh."  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 29.8 (1971): 341-57. Print
8  Carboni, Stefano. Venice and the Islamic World:  828 - 1797 : Intitut Du Monde Arabe, Paris, Ocotober 2, 2006 - February 18, 2007: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 27 - July 8, 2007.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art [u.a., 2007. 303. Print
9  Department of Islamic Art.  "The Art of the Mughals before 1600". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 - (October 2002)


  1. Amazing! Such a pleasure to read this entry on Islamic art. Keep up the great work, we will check in often!

    1. Thank you so much for the comment. I wonder if you saw my last book review - Color in Islamic Art and Culture -
      More will be coming soon.

  2. I second the previous commenter's sentiments :) - this is an amazing article and it explains so much while opening up new, interesting inquiries.

    I'm so glad I came across your blog!

    1. Ana,

      Welcome to Sedef's Corner. I hope to have more about Islamic Art here soon.

  3. Thank you for this post, Sedef! The 10th century plate is one of my all time favorite pieces of art -- what a treat to see it here! For me, it's a perfect example of the beauty of simplicity. Breathtaking. And I love your comparison of the two portraits of Mehmet II -- what do you (or others) make of the difference in representation -- symbols of royalty in one, a rose in the other?

    1. Karen,

      The two portraits are the perfect embodiment of the difference in cultures. The Italian portrait is in the style of the Renaissance portrait that has a long history going all the way back to antiquity. The Turkish miniature has a more humble approach - it represents Mehmet as a man who can appreciate God's creations and recalls him as a devout ruler... the rose represents God (Allah) is Islamic art.

      I rather like the 10th century plate myself. It is all that is refined and perfect.

  4. I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog.
    Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself?
    Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a great
    blog like this one today.


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