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History of Persian Miniature painting

The origins of Persian painting unquestionably predate the advent of Islamic civilization in Persia. From the 3rd century AH onwards with the emergence of local ruling dynasties and the growing influence of distinguished Persian figures at the Abbasid court, Persian cultural and artistic traditions, which had remained stagnant for several centuries, because pre-Islamic Persian art had been based on their ancient Persian wisdom.

Mongol hordes invaded and devastated Persia during the 7th and 8th century AH. Genghis khan’s invasion began in 615 AH and lasted until 619 AH. Holaku khan army marched into Persia and razed Samarqand in 654 AH. Before taking control of Baghdad and overthrowing the Abbasid dynasty three years later. Timur’s repeated bloody onslaughts at the close of the 8th century left many Persian cities in ruins and innumerable people dead. In the course of these savage invasions, wall paintings inside palaces were destroyed and thousands of manuscripts both illustrated and non-illustrated were burned to ashes when libraries across the country were put to flame.

This explains the scarcity of pictorial works from before the Mongol invasions, either in the form of illustrated manuscripts or wall paintings.

Il-khanid painting in Tabriz

Political stability gradually returned to Persia after the last Il-khans embraced Islam and adopted the indigenous Persian culture and civilization.

Thanks to the managerial skills and the administrative experience the native Persians brought to the Il-khans government, scientific and cultural activities flourished and cities began proposing anew. During the rein of Ghazan-khan (694-703 AH) the physician and historian Rashid-o-Din Hamadani rose to the post of prime minister. He commissioned on supervised the creation in the suburbs of Tabriz of Rabe-e-Rashidi, which became the gathering place for numerous scientists, calligraphers, artists and writers who soon began producing and illustrating sundry manuscripts in it’s workshops. It was during that era (Il-khanid period, 8th century AH) that the Tabriz school of painting reached full maturity. This school best reveals its personality and particularities in the illustrated copy of the Jame-o-Tavarikh compiled by Rashid-o-Din himself and said to have been reproduced and illustrated in approximately twenty Persian and Arabic copies, and in a copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (ca.735 AH), referred to as the Demotte Shahnameh.

By the close of the 8th century the Mongols influence had decreased. For example although they preserve some of the early characteristics such as attention to realism and representation of human moods and feelings through their characters postures the illustrations contained in a copy of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, created around 735 Ah for Abu-saeed, display the full refinement and maturity of Persian art in their decoration, coloring and composition.

The persistence of the traditions in Persian paintings in Shiraz in the 8th century Ah,

At the same time that painting and book illustration flourished in western Persia around Tabriz, Miniature painting continued its evolution in southern Persia, Undergoing relatively different developments. In fact escaping unscathed from the assault of Mongol hordes, the province of Fars and Shiraz witnessed the natural evolution of Persian painting traditions, free from Mongol influence, and compositions involving imposing figures, symmetrical structures, purer colors and more elaborate decoration were perpetuated by its artists.

The persistence of the painting traditions of this region, which was more in touch with the evolution of the school of Baghdad than was Tabriz, is best exemplified in the illustrations of the Varqheh-va-Golshah manuscript.

The decorative features, palette and simple composition of the works produced by the school of the Shiraz are best visible in the paintings of a Shahnameh created around 732 AH and today preserved at the Topkapi Saray Museum in Istanbul.

Miniature painting under the Jalayerids

The end of Il-khanid rules after Abu-saeed Bahador-khans death (376 Ah) provided an opportunity for local governments to emerge across Persia. This period which lasted until the end of the 8th century Ah (the date of Timur’s invasion), was a golden era during which the painting styles of western and southern Persia most effectively came together. In the interim period between the down fall of the Mongol Il-khans and the onset of Timur’s invasions, the Jalayerid dynasty enjoyed a more important position, which allowed it to rule from Baghdad of Tabriz for more than half a century (From around 740-813 Ah). This interval allowed the artists of these two centers, each of which boasted a vigorous and longstanding tradition in the art of the book, to better benefit from their mutual experiences. During Jalayerid patronage, specially during the reign of Sultan Oveis (739-776 Ah) and Sultan Ahmad (784-813 Ah), who were both keen supporters of poets and scholars, this merger of experiences led to the emergence of a purified style of painting at the Jalayerid court in Baghdad. In fact contacts between the schools of Shiraz and Baghdad in the second half of the 8th century Ah and the transfer of the artistic experiences through the artists of the school of Tabriz to the Jalayerid court deeply affected the development of later schools of art, including that of Timurid painting. Mention most also be made here of Joneid’s art, which masterfully combined the heritage of the Shiraz school with the experience of the artists of Tabriz, producing superb works in the late 8th century Ah, including the illustrations of Khaju-ye Kermani’s Divan, created in 799 Ah. The works of Joneid and Khajeh Abd-ol-Hayy, another painter active at Sultan Ahmad Jalayer’s court, may be considered to have paved the way for the development of the school of Heart.

The extent of which the merger of the experiences of the artists belonging to three major schools of art (Shiraz, Baghdad and Tabriz) in the Jalayerid period contributed to the foundation of Timurid art and the emergence of the highly regarded school of Heart may be measured by the personal notes of the 10th century Ah copyist and painter, Doost Mohammad Govashani. While introducing Ahmad mussa as the developer and promoter of Persian painting under Abu-Saeed Khodabandeh, to whom he attributes the Abu-saeed Nameh, Kelileh-va-Demneh, Meraj Nameh and Tarikh-e Changizi, he notes that Amir Dowlatyar and Shams-o-Din were his pupils during Sultan Ovis Jalayers rule in Baghdad. He then elaborates on Shams-o-Din tutorship under Khajeh Abdol Hayy. After Timure’s conquests and fall of Baghdad, besides working at Sultan Ahmads court, Shams-o-Din joined Timur’s camp at Samarqand where he began promoting his style of painting and that of his masters ( the heritage of the school of Shiraz, Tabriz and Baghdad) before turning to teaching students notably Pir-Ahmad Baghshomali, who joined Shahrokh’s court in Heart after Timur’s death and was active in Baysonqor-Mirza’s (802-838 Ah) workshop until his death at the age of fifty. In preparation of his new library and workshop in Heart, Baysonqor-Mirza also summoned several painters, book binders, calligraphers and illuminators from Tabriz. In this way the artistic heritage of the 8th and early 9th century Ah schools of Baghdad, Tabriz and Shiraz enabled the painting school of Heart to flourish.

The Shiraz School of painting in the 9th century Ah

The path toward the revival of the Persian school of shiraz, which occurred in the second half of the 9th century, was paved during it’s first half, when Timur’s sons, Eskandar sultan (812-817 Ah) and Ibrahim Sultan (817-837 Ah) Governed Fars. After Timur’s death and Shahrokh accession in Heart, these two princes, both keen patrons of artists and writers, successively ruled Fars. Fortunately, like many other descendants of Timur, they were captivated by, and immersed themselves in, Persian culture and arts. Painting and book design acquired great esteem in their courts. The illustrations of one of the most important manuscripts prepared in 813 Ah for Eskandar Sultan (Jong-e-Eskandar Sultan) and those of a Shahnameh prepared after him for Shahrokh’s son, Ibrahim Sultan, are the most significant products of the Shiraz school of painting in the first half of the 9th century.

Some artists active at the court of these two princes had come to Shiraz from Samarqand and Heart, contributing their experiences to the local school of art. As a result, a greater maturity was in perceptible in this city’s painting of the first half of the 9th century. Works produced during this period display more precise symmetrical composition, more refined landscaping and better relationship between the text areas and pictorial elements a lighter palette, the use of decorative elements. More masterfully designed characters and refined silhouetting of rocks further add tot their refinement.

The characteristics of the school of Shiraz at its peak during the second half of the 9th century Ah are best represented in the illustrations of a Khavaran-Nameh dated 882 Ah. The major part of this manuscript is preserved at the Golestan Palace Museum, Tehran.

Miniature painting at Herat in the Timurid period

Ninth century Persian miniature painting, inextricably linked with the name of Herat, is known as the Timurid School of painting. Timur’s son, Shahrokh, had been appointed governor of Khorasan, Sistan, Ray and Mazandaran. In 799 AH After Timur’s death (807 Ah), he succeeded on the throne in Herat and ruled until 850 Ah. Although initially faced with feuds and rebellions among provincial governors, he eventually secured his rule over all Persia and Transoxiana. He devoted considerable energy to the development of Herat and other cities, thereby providing an opportunity for the school of Herat to flourish.

A manuscript created for Shahrokh around 828 Ah was Hafeze Abru’s Majma-o-tavarikh, its surviving pages are unfortunately scattered today. Several pages of this manuscript are preserved at the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran; represent the school of Herat at the time Shahrokh in the current exhibition. The illustrations of the Majma-o-Tavarikh are simple compositions of large aligned or opposed characters depicted on a relatively bare background topped by blue sky.

Concurrently with Shahrokh, his son Baysonqor-Mirza founded a library of his own, where he gathered the most talented painters, book binders, illuminators, and calligraphers of his time. The painters Hajj-Ali Mossavver, Amir-Shahi sabzevari and Seyyed Ahmad Naqqash, the book binder Qavam-o-Din Sahhaf and the renowned calligrapher Mowlana jafar Tabrizi were among the artists busy in the workshop of Baysonqor Mirza’s library.

Baysonqor Mirza was a man of letters and a calligrapher and the workshops under his patronage greatly contributed to the progress of the school of Herat. In fact as noted above, this prosperity of the school of Herat took place under the influence, and as a natural result, of the evolution of book illustration in the school of Tabriz, Baghdad and Shiraz.

The beautiful paintings of two superb manuscripts created in this period, a Kelile-va- Demneh dated 833 Ah and the Shahname Baysonqory, clearly show the mastery of artists active in the first half of the 9th century Ah in Baysonqor’s workshops and the development of the school of Herat in that period.

Two other manuscripts contain illustrations which bear great importance in the study of the school of Herat in mid 9th century Ah. One is Mir-Heidar’s Meraj Nameh dated 840 Ah and preserved at the Bibliotheque National in Paris. All the pages of this manuscript contain illustrations whose vibrant colors an brilliant gilding make them excellent examples of the applications of the traditions of Persian Pictorial art, in which the metaphoric atmosphere of Persian painting is most perceptible. The other is a Shahnameh created for another Timurid prince, and known as the Shahnameh-ye Mohammad-e Juki.

As concerns the particularities of Persian painting in the first half of the 9th century Ah, one may say in general terms that they involve livelier, less symmetrical scenes than their contemporary counterpart produced in Shiraz. Their sophisticated colors the precise design of their human and animal characters. Their attention to the reproduction of nature’s idyllic landscapes and their relationship to architectural elements constitute important achievements of the school of Herat in the second half of the 9th century Ah. Hence this school paved the way for the paintings of Behzad and his contemporary artists to develop.

After Shahrokh’s death in the second half of the 9th century Ah, the workshops of Herat remained idle until Sultan Hussein Bayqara’s accession in 873 Ah, Sultan Hussein reign over Herat, which lasted until 911 Ah, witnessed the revival of artistic and literally activities. Assisted by his erudite minister, Mir Ali-shirr Navai (848- 906 Ah), he gathered prominent artists and men of letters at his court, creating a circle of learned and talented figures in his entourage. Among the notable figures in this circle was the greatest artist of the time Kamal-o-Din Behzad.

The brilliant art produced by this talented team in the fourth quarter of the 9th century Ah illumined the entire body of Timuried art, to which it owes the best part of its universal recognition. Fortunately, after the Timuried period, a considerable portion of this magnificent heritage was transferred, thanks to Safavid patronage, to Tabriz, where it gave birth to the most sublime gems of Persian art.

Behzad’s style of painting and the innovations he introduced in the arts of his time influenced his contemporaries and pupils. This influence remained perceptible, alongside that of the school of Tabriz.

Although Behzad was the most famous artist of his time only a few paintings beer his distinctive signature “Amal-e al-abd Behzad”.

Clues to the importance of Behzad’s personality and art are found in an edict issued 928 Ah by the Safavid Shah Esmaeil, appointing director of the royal library and its workshops in Tabriz and ordering their entire staff, including scribes, painters, illuminators, frame draftsmen, gilders and watercolorists, to obey him.

The Tabriz school of painting in the Safavid period

The Safavids accession to the power in the 10th century Ah brought Persia religious and political unity and development, as well as historical and cultural progress and artistic prosperity. Shah Esmail (892-930 Ah), the grandson of Sheikh Safi-o-Din Ardebili (who was the founder and first monarch of this dynasty) conquered Tabriz and all Azerbaijan in 907 Ah. From there, he went on to conquer Isfahan, Yazd, Kerman, and southern Khorassan, before eventually taking control of Baghdad and Diar-Bakr in 914 Ah, to the detriment of the Aq-Qoyunloo dynasty. Shah Esmails main achievement after these conquests was his cleansing of eastern Persia of all Uzbek presence in 916 Ah. After having the Uzbek Shibak Khan assassinated, he launched a campaign towards Herat, which he soon conquered. Although some are of the opinion that, after defeating the Uzbeks, Shah Esmail had some of the artists of the workshops of Herat, including Behzad, move to Tabriz, this is quite improbable, because the stability needed for the workshops of the Safavid court to develop did not exist in Tabriz at the time. More likely, as is recorded in Manaqeb-e Honarvaran, Shah Esmail kept Behzad concealed in a cave during the chaotic days of the Ottoman armies’ pillage of Tabriz in 920 Ah and the battle of Chaldoran, later taking him, along with several other artists, back to Herat. They remained there until 928 Ah, before eventually moving back to Tabriz in the company of the heir to Throne, Tahmasb-Mirza, because the edict appointing Behzad director of the royal library and workshops dates from that year.

Be it as it may, the presence in Tabriz of Behzad and other artists from the workshops of Herat played a significant role in the development of the Tabriz school of painting in the first half of the 10th century Ah. Behzad's appointment to the direction of the royal library bespeaks the esteem, in which Shah Esmail held the master, as well as his desire for the royal workshops of Tabriz to flourish, and indeed, superb works were created there under Shah Tahmasb.

The Tabriz school of painting, whose illustrious artists were able to step beyond their heritage of Turkmen and Timurid art, soon gave birth to works of incomparable magnificence. In step with political changes occurring in the country, the art that took shape in this school first affected painting in Qazvin and Mashhad and then reached Herat, Isfahan Shiraz and elsewhere. The influence of Safvid art even crossed Persian frontiers and, just as Persian art had penetrated Bokhara in Timurid times, made its way into Turkey and India, whose painters went on emulating the work of Persian artists for several centuries.

More than in any other period of Persian art, paintings produced in the school of Tabriz in this era are grandiose and dazzling. They represent the peak of the mystical art of Persian artists and depict scenes which can only be the products of a spiritual view of the world. It is as thought the artists of the school of Tabriz have found the eye of their hearts open to truth concerning the real world which cannot be seen by those lacking spiritual vision. Their lively landscapes filled with lively flower bushes, tall cypresses and blossom-covered trees create metaphoric images of paradise. Their works combine forceful character design, accomplished coloring and masterful composition with a meticulous decoration involving precise architectural elements and superb geometric and vegetal patterns. Their indigo-blue skies strewn with surreal clouds, colorful birds flying among their foliages, and angels appearing on earth every now and then, adding a spiritual and poetic touch to their works, all seem to indicate that the artists of the school of Tabriz have come to perceive the spiritual and the physical worlds as inseparable.

These characteristics are visible in the most outstanding works of the school of Tabriz such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Nezami’s Khamseh prepared for King Tahmasb.

The Qazvin school of painting in the second half of the 10th century AH,

After King Tahmasb’s death, Esmaeil Mirza ascended to the throne as King Esmaeil II. His reign, however, lasted no more than 16 months, coming to an end on Ramadan 13th, 985 AH with his death by opium poisoning. His accession to the throne came after a twenty-year-long detention, which probably explains his embittered, cruel character. Indeed during his brief reign he had many members of the royal family, including three of his brothers and his cousin Ibrahim Mirza, the governor of Mashhad and the patron of Jami’s Haft Owrang, assassinated.