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Central Islamic Lands

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Richard Ettinghausen et al.

From The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250
© 1987 Yale University Press
Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press


The carpet pages [428] comprise the initial double-page illumination from the twenty-eighth juz' of a Qur'an made for the library of a Zangid prince who ruled Sinjar, Khabur, and Nisibin in the Jazira from 1198 to 1219.285 This section is one of five extant parts of the only Zangid Qur'an from the Jazira known to have survived; and, it is the only juz' providing information about the provenance and date of this manuscript. The calligraphic, vegetal, and geometric decoration lavishly executed in gold is closely related to that found adorning a number of the objects that were produced in the same area or in realms with close ties to this branch of the Zangid dynasty. The symmetrical arabesque designs on this frontispiece, for example, are particularly reminiscent of those on contemporary metal, ceramic and glass objects as well as those on textiles and wood [398, 400, 411, 415, 416, 420, 423].

Thanks to the identification of five sections of the Qutb al-Din Qur'an, it is possible to begin to follow the evolution of the art of book illumination in the Jazira. Since each extant juz' is fully illuminated, the decoration within these five codices can be used like a pattern book for manuscript illumination around the year 1200 in the Jazira, about which we previously knew almost nothing.286 The ornamentation of these folios helps us to understand better the tradition that was soon to give rise to the superb illumination found in the earliest surviving copy of the Masnavi of Jalal al-DinRumi most probably produced in Konya and now in the Mevlana Museum in that city. Consisting of six splendidly bound volumes comprising a total of 613 folios, this manuscript is dated 1268-69 and was calligraphed by 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad al-Konyali and illuminated by Mukhlis ibn 'Abd Allah al-Hindi. Each volume opens with a double-page composition illuminated in gold of such exquisite execution that the manuscript has been called 'one of the finest - if not the finest - illuminated Islamic manuscript of the thirteenth century' [429].287

The illumination of the so-called Qarmatian Qur'an [430] - its original volumes are still in Istanbul but many of its leaves are scattered around the world - shares certain features with the ornamentation of the two Qur'an manuscripts just discussed as well as with the decorative motifs employed on other media produced in the central Islamic lands at this time.288 To cite just two examples, the bold arabesque design gracing the lower border of the leaf illustrated here is strikingly similar to that filling the illumination from the Masnavi [429]; and the vegetal rinceau and its background of tightly coiled spirals which characteristically completely fills the spaces between the lines and letters of the folios of the so-called Qarmatian Qur'an is very commonly found on the group of Syrian lustre-painted pottery exemplified by the basin [411] as is the outlining of the script itself.

As regards the art of manuscript illustration in the central Islamic lands at this time, that practised in Iraq, the Jazira and Syria was so closely related in theme, style, and iconography that it seems best to treat it under a single heading. Thematically the material falls into two or perhaps three major groups: illustrations of technical and scientific subject matter which served as visual aids to ensure proper identification and to facilitate explanation; illustrations accompanying works of belles-lettres; and possibly, as a third group, illustrations for philosophical treatises.

The first category consists mainly of self-contained pictures accompanying works by authors such as al-Sufi, Ibn al-Ahnaf, Ibn Bukhtishu, al-Zahrawi, and al-Jazari, as well as the anonymous writers known as Pseudo-Aristotle and Pseudo-Galen. Arabic translations of works by Dioskorides and Heron of Alexandria were also copied and illustrated.289 The subjects depicted range from personifications of constellations to animal representations, illustrations of veterinary procedures, medicinal plants, surgical instruments, and automata. Episodic action is relatively rare and reflects the influence of the next thematic category.

This second group consists primarily of illustrated copies of two books that were very popular during the medieval period. The first, Kalila wa-Dimna, was a compendium of fables named after the two main characters, a pair of jackals. Allegedly composed by the wise Brahmin Bidba (or Bidpai), it belongs to the literary genre of 'mirrors for princes' which embodies precepts for rulers regarding good governance - here made more palatable by the animal guises of the characters. These stories originated in the Indian Panchatantra, of which a Middle Persian version had been translated into Arabic under the title Kalila wa-Dimna in the eighth century.290 The second 'best seller' belongs to the literary genre called maqamat ('assemblies' or 'entertaining dialogues'), an indigenous Muslim creation. The first of its kind was written in Arabic by the Iranian al-Hamadhani (968-1007). However, the one authored by the Iraqi al-Hariri (1054-1122) was the most popular of the type, and it was his Maqamat that was most frequently copied and lavishly illustrated during this period.

The text of al-Hariri's Maqamat consists of fifty picaresque tales narrated by al-Harith ibn Hammam, each set in a different part of the Muslim world. In every story a group of people is so overwhelmed by the astounding eloquence and erudition of an aged stranger, Abu Zayd of Sarub that in the end they amply reward him with money, which he as often as not spends improperly. The real purpose of the book is to demonstrate the most elaborate linguistic fireworks; and, therefore, only the barest indications of action and setting are given. Nevertheless, several copies are enriched by a series of imaginative compositions in appropriate, often quite detailed, settings in which the characters express by attitude and gesture the liveliest interest and even active participation in the events depicted. The wealth and variety of scenes - often depicting several episodes in one story - is astonishing, and varies from manuscript to manuscript.292 There are episodes on land and sea; in towns, villages, and deserts; indoors and outdoors; involving human beings, animals, or both. Scenes in mosques and palaces occur, but those of everyday urban life constitute the characteristic settings. Keen insight into the psychology of situations and personality types is the hallmark of this art. Also noticeable is a tendency towards satire, directed against the Turkic ruling class,293 which reveals sentiments apparently shared at that time by much of the Arab population of the area. Indeed, these miniatures provide a unique mirror of contemporary civilization.

The panoramic view of a village [433] is representative of the close attention paid in the Maqamat paintings to details of quotidian existence in the multifaceted Arab mercantile society, a characteristic that makes these illustrations highly reflective of this specific milieu. The unusually detailed vignettes punctuating several extant copies of this manuscript inform us better than those in any other medium about contemporary daily life in the Arab world. As has been stated earlier in this work, the inventiveness of the illustrators of manuscripts such as these influenced the rich repertory of Jaziran metalworkers.

A special kind of painting, common to both thematic groups of miniatures, is the frontispiece. There seems to have been no hard and fast rule, but scientific treatises are generally introduced by 'author portraits', while works of belles-lettres frequently include idealized 'portraits' of rulers, sometimes of the patrons of the books.294

The not well represented and therefore vaguely defined third group - illustrations for philosophical treatises or wisdom literature - exhibits most features of the second group in addition to the introductory 'author portraits' of the first.295

Three major stylistic categories can be established in the art of manuscript illustration at this time, which to some extent cut across the boundaries of the thematic groups and occasionally, it would seem, reflect regional origins. At present, however, the number of manuscripts and the historical data they contain are too limited to permit further, more precise classification.

In the first stylistic category there is heavy reliance on Byzantine prototypes such as scientific works and bibles, gospels, and lives of saints.296 Although the human figures are shown in turbans and caftan-like garments, quite often their postures and even groupings derive from Greek manuscripts. Identical copies of whole compositions, feature by feature, are rare; usually specific elements have been adapted and rearranged, and motifs from other sources as well as contemporary additions are incorporated. Most important from an artistic point of view is the frequent 'humanization' of the figural scenes: personal relations exist between figures, usually between a speaker and a listener; and, compared to the Greek models, the action has far greater immediacy and relevance.297 On the other hand, vegetal forms are more stylized, and the treatment of animals more varied: sometimes they are conventionalized, but often they take on human traits [431]. The influence of Greek originals is especially clear in the three-dimensional modelling of figures by means of shading and the relatively natural fall of garment folds.

In this category are to be found many of the illustrated scientific texts that have survived from this period, of which the finest are two manuscripts of Dioskorides' work on the pharmacological properties of plants, De materia medica - one dated 1224, the other 1229 [432].298 Of several al-Sufi manuscripts, the most spirited are in Istanbul, Paris, and London, the first dated 1130, the last two undated but of the thirteenth century.299 Some literary works, primarily a 1222-23 copy of al-Hariri's Maqamat, also belong to this group.300 The Dioskorides copy of 1224 and a Pseudo-Galen of 1199301 also incorporate features from the second stylistic category to be discussed below, pointing up the cross-fertilization that occurred in much of the art of this period. The colophon of the 1229 Dioskorides contains expressions in Syriac, perhaps indicating an origin in Syria or the Jazira; furthermore, some of the architectural details in al-Hariri's Maqamat of 1222-23 and two related copies of Kalila wa-Dimna are characteristic of the area of Aleppo.302

The second stylistic category, apparently without a single firm tradition, is basically original to this period and area.303 This group is best represented by three fine manuscripts of al-Hariri's Maqamat: an undated one in St Petersburg, probably executed between 1225 and 1235; a second painted by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti in 1237 [433]; and, possibly the most elaborate but unfortunately also the most desecrated by iconophobes, a copy made during the reign of the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mu'tasim (1242-58).304

The emphasis here is on action and on realistic detail. Instead of moulding the body, garments swirl around it under the impetus of rapid motion, and this effect is underscored by energetic gesture and lively facial expression. Despite the originality of this 'Iraqi action style', medieval artists in the Muslim world, as in Europe, customarily worked from earlier models, so that related or parallel sources probably furnished catalysts, if not prototypes; the most likely are the brightly coloured figures and evocative scenery from the shadow plays, to which there are many references in contemporary Arabic and Persian literature.305 Whatever their sources, these Maqamat miniatures must be regarded as outstanding pictorial creations of the period and the finest ever produced in the Arabic-speaking world. Indeed, the Iraqi action style had so much vitality that it survived the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the collapse of the ruling caliphate. A double frontispiece with 'author portraits' in the same animated manner appears at the beginning of a copy of Rasail Ikhwan al-Safa (The Epistles of the Brethren of Sincerity) of 1284.306 Even as late as 1297 or 1299 the same style enlivened eleven miniatures depicting mammals in the first part of a Persian copy of Manafi al-Hayawan (Beneficial Uses of Animals) by Ibn Bukhtishu, painted in Maragha in northwestern Iran.307 After this the style disappeared.

A third, stylistic category, instead of characterizing all of the illustrations in a given manuscript, comprises two specific types of miniatures. The first is the 'princely frontispiece', where the enthroned, frontally rendered, ruler is flanked by attendants standing stiffly at attention or ready to serve - the latter being depicted in a smaller scale than the potentate himself. These compositions are akin to the royal representations on Sasanian rock reliefs, which were also adapted to various early Islamic scenes [194]. They occur particularly in manuscripts attributable to Iraq, including several volumes of one copy of Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs) probably made for a prince of Mosul in the second decade of the thirteenth century [434] and the Maqamat of al-Hariri dated 1237 and discussed previously.308 The second type is the antithetical scene, especially as found in Kalila wa-Dimna illustrations, in which pairs of animals flank central trees or plants.309 This device, too, is known from Sasanian and early Islamic silver, stuccoes, and silks. The fact that these two types of miniatures occur in manuscripts attributable to several different regions of the Muslim world attests to the thoroughness with which earlier traditions had been absorbed into the arts of the medieval Islamic world.

Let us turn, finally, to the illustrations of an undated copy of the romantic Persian poem Warqa wa-Gulshah,310 consisting of scenes in a kind of ribbon format, wider than it is high, with the figures usually extending over much of the height between the lower and upper edges of the picture band [435]. The cultural climate in which this manuscript was created was not unlike that in which so many of the objects seen in this section were produced. Consequently, it is not surprising to see the effect in this medium as well of the tremendous displacement of artisans at this point in the history of the medieval Islamic world. We have already discussed how an enforced migration from east to west contributed greatly to an eventual blending of styles in the art of the weaver, the potter, and the metalworker. That of the miniaturist was no exception.

Thus, although certain Persian influences are discernible in this manuscript, the coloured backgrounds, ribbon format of the scenes, type of vegetation, and figural style are also all quite closely related to depictions in manuscripts probably produced in the Jazira in the middle of the thirteenth century.311 The particular type of arabesque filling the background on the miniature illustrated here and on others in the codex is to be found not only on early thirteenth-century Kashan pottery [280] but also decorating the draperies, thrones, tents, pillows and garments in two manuscripts of al-Hariri's Maqamat, one dated 1237 and the other datable to some time between 1225 and 1235 as well as in the Paris Pseudo-Galen of 1199 probably copied in the Jazira (all of which were mentioned earlier) and in Anatolian Qur'an illumination.312 One encounters the same figural style in miniature painting from the Jazira as well as in the polychrome overglaze- and underglaze-painted ceramics discussed earlier [272-275, 414, 416] from both Anatolia and Iran. Furthermore, stylistic comparisons can be made with inlaid metalwork from the Jazira and northern Syria.

Because of the blending of styles seen here, the provenance of this unique codex has long been debated. However, several representations and biographical information on the painter seem to tip the balance in favour of the central Islamic lands as the place of origin - a general provenance reinforced by a number of the comparisons discussed above. Not only is the pre-Islamic ruler depicted as a Turkic military leader but Crusader foot-soldiers, armed with a type of weapon common in medieval Europe, and Christian knights are represented in some of the paintings.313 Since one of the pages is signed in large letters by the painter 'Abd al-Mu'min ibn Muhammad, whose family originated from Khoy, Azerbaijan, and settled in Kastamonu north of Ankara, and since we know that the painter witnessed the deed of endowment for the Karatay madrasa in Konya in 1252-53, perhaps we can be even more specific. It might be safe to assume that he was living and working in the capital at that time and to suggest further that he illustrated the manuscript there some time during the middle decades of the thirteenth century.314

The number of precisely dated or datable leather bindings extant from the period covered by this volume is extremely small. The two previously discussed examples of this art [120, 155], dating from the end of the ninth and end of the tenth centuries respectively, both exhibit the horizontal format common during the early Islamic period. The example [436], datable to 1182 or slightly earlier, and thus approximately two hundred years later than the binding [155], exhibits several new characteristics which were to dominate the art of bookbinding in the Islamic world for centuries. The first of these is the three-part construction of the binding, consisting of an upper cover (missing here), lower cover, and, attached to the fore-edge of the latter, a pentagonal envelope flap.315 Thought to have made its first appearance in the eleventh century, this classic type was to remain an intrinsic feature of Islamic bindings at least until the eighteenth century, when the influence of those from Europe brought about a slow disappearance of the traditional fore-edge flap. Another new characteristic seen here is the vertical format that was to be so universally popular from the medieval period onwards. That this is an early example of the new orientation is seen in the fact that the only clue to the vertical format on the binding itself is the lack of a central border at the sides of the back cover, thus rendering the design higher than it is wide. Finally, we see here an early example of the use of triangular corner designs in the central rectangle, a convention that was to remain popular not only for Islamic bindings but for those of the Renaissance as well.316 This tooled binding can be attributed to Damascus on the basis of two notations in the binding's manuscript.317

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